People are thinking about you…
November 4, 2021 3:53 PM   Subscribe

…about as much as you think about them—but they don't think you're a mess. Researchers on the "thought gap" and the "beautiful mess effect".

From the first link:
Across eight experiments involving over 2,100 people, social psychologists Gus Cooney, Erica Boothby, and Mariana Lee found that we regularly underestimate the frequency with which others are thinking about us. People assume it’s one-sided when they dwell on social interactions and conversations; in fact, others are thinking about them, too.
From the second link:
The good news is that, according to research, our worries about the negative evaluations of others may not be entirely reflected in the way people actually see us in difficult moments. Building on prior pioneering studies of vulnerability by researcher Brené Brown at the University of Houston, my colleagues and I conducted six experiments that revealed consistent results: Across a variety of situations, such as asking for help or admitting to a mistake, people perceived their own displays of vulnerability more negatively than others did.
posted by bixfrankonis (14 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
These are really helpful perspectives!

"Not only are we in people’s thoughts more than we expect, but those thoughts are also likely to be more positive than we expect."

posted by evilmomlady at 4:27 AM on November 5, 2021 [7 favorites]

Thank you so much for sharing these - I have sent them to my son who is having difficult issues with some of what is raised here, and this is exactly what he needs to read.
posted by Megami at 5:35 AM on November 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

At first I was going to write a joke comment about how the topic was so horrifying I didn't dare read the articles, but then I read the Vice piece and's not really a joke? The idea that others aren't thinking about me, is one of the few things that gets me through the day intact. It has been one of the few tools in my social anxiety toolbox. But to know it's not true? Yikes!
posted by mittens at 5:40 AM on November 5, 2021 [12 favorites]

Oh, what a wonderful set of links! My current lab has an online conference coming up, so I've been giving a lot of advice about networking strategies to some of the junior lab members as we prepare for a two day event where we all set up shop in our conference room and jointly watch a bunch of talks. The thing I find myself saying over and over again is: think of things that genuinely impress you about other people's work, and then make sure that you go tell them you think that. People tend to go "oh--oh really? oh!" and remember you as someone who made them feel good, and then often go look for things you're doing that make them go "oh, neat!" right back, and then you have a nascent friendship to build on.

I am also a socially anxious person who self-soothes by telling myself that no one is noticing me, of course! I suspect much of that is because, well, I'm a perpetually masking autistic who is running all my human interaction strategies through a mostly consciously considered set of theories about how people work. Thinking through all of that stuff and adjusting to it on the fly is effort that has largely been developed through adjusting to criticisms and things that don't work, so I habitually pay a lot of attention to potentially risky failures of social interactions and less to successes. We also seem to be more likely to remember to communicate negative feedback because it bothers us, so it's right at the front of our heads--or at least, this is absolutely true for me, remembering to provide complimentary feedback to people around me is a very deliberate habit I have to remind myself to cultivate. So I think that also might play into these skewed ideas of the ways that others perceive us.

I have tried to bring this notion of communicating positive impressions of one another to MeFi in the past, by trying to create spaces where we can casually share complimentary "hey I noticed X was doing a lovely thing" memes on the grey, but I think it inflamed a lot of insecurities for people who hadn't seen themselves mentioned yet. I can say that if you give a lot of compliments, you tend to stick in the mind to receive more, but it's hard to create a space where that reasoning is obvious and clearly communicated to folks, so I gave up after a bit on that angle on community building.
posted by sciatrix at 7:36 AM on November 5, 2021 [12 favorites]

I am also a very anxious person who is perpetually noticing everything about everyone around me and replaying old interactions. My thoughts about other people are pretty consistently positive or excusing anything off (they were probably just nervous or tired, etc.) so yeah, it makes sense that the proverbial shoe on the other mental foot means they're probably doing the same. And we're all nice about it even inside our own heads.

sciatrix, there's probably a way to game that lovely thing system so it works a bit smoother, like whoever comments last the next person has to mention if they can. I do think those things are wonderful community moments.

I've learned to accept my own vulnerability as I've gotten older and more secure in myself. Gently acknowledging it in public is almost always kind of a "wow, me too!" moment for people that leads to a good interaction. When I tell people from time to time that I'm actually an incredibly shy person, it seems to unlock some part of themselves that they maybe didn't get to let out often.

I just had the thought the world needs more vulnerability and less stoicism, but I'm actually a big practitioner of Stoicism capital word as it leads to quite a lot of showing your own true self... so what I mean is less of the now common idea that we lock it all away/stiff upper lip (and mentally torment ourselves if we're of a certain mental bend).
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:46 AM on November 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is much more horrifying when you're one of the people that the entire world makes a grand point of contemptuously despising and rubbing their hatred for you in your face umpteen times a day, every day, for your entire life. Please, think about me less...
posted by CyberSlug Labs at 8:02 AM on November 5, 2021

Just as the article says, the fact that the thoughts others are having about me are likely more positive than I think has zero effect, but the fact that "people aren't thinking about you, they're worrying about their own lives" isn't true has my chest tightening, lololol.
posted by pelvicsorcery at 9:00 AM on November 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

I had a conversation with someone the other day regarding social awkwardness--specifically they think they are awkward one-on-one and prefer to hide in groups--and I was all "I don't really notice anything weird, honestly." Unless you do something drastically out of the norm or that actively comes off as mean/rude/angry, people probably aren't going to red flag it. Like for example, the person above in the beforetimes would be out with us and they would sometimes go leave the room for a few minutes to do something-or-other outside. And that's a little odd, but nobody really cares, other than "where did he go?" "I dunno, probably outside again?" As long as you come back in (as opposed to a friend who got drunk and wandered off and didn't surface again until the next day!), who cares?

Even if YOU feel weird, other people may not necessarily care/notice/find that you are actively being weird to them, is my opinion.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:02 AM on November 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

I generally assume that most people I regularly interact with pay at least enough attention to me to somewhat accurately perceive most of my more obvious flaws, but I also assume they're mostly going to cut me a certain amount of slack (and if they don't, that this is more about them) - because that's what I generally do when I notice something unflattering about someone else: I notice it, and that's the end of the story; it just doesn't matter much in the larger scheme of things; it doesn't dectract from my general affection/admiration for the person; it doesn't immediately make them sink in my esteem. Noticing weaknesses and vulnerabilities might even make me feel closer to that person, like I know them better and in a way, that makes their strengths and merits more credible to me too. They are more real to me all of a sudden, and so is everything cool and nice about them.

I like to think that I'm not outlier in the way I react to this, and this sort of projection has been working reasonabily well for me so far - I don't need everyone to be terribly impressed with me at all times, but I need to trust that I will be given a certain margin of error.

I try to give everyone the same margin of error, but I'm not sure I'm always as fair as I would like to be. I assume that most people aren't - what kind of margin of error people tend to give you largely depends on various systems of privilege. I'm fat, so more people are more likely to be more grossed out by the way I eat for instance. And I need to spend a lot more money on clothes to be considered someone who at least tries. People are just going to jump to "slob" a lot sooner. But I'm privileged in many other regards and people have been historically willing to cut me a certain amount of slack with regard to other things. In sum, the calculation mostly works for me to be relatively at ease in my everyday social settings.

But I do very much understand that it doesn't work out like that for everyone and that it's very much not just a matter of having (and projecting) the right attitude.
posted by sohalt at 11:20 AM on November 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

I like saying...

"I think highly of you. Please don't take it personal. " :)
posted by goalyeehah at 11:27 AM on November 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

My social anxiety comes from my own tendency to judge and observe people without realizing what I am doing. I overcorrect and give people huge benefits of the doubt because inside I am a monster. I can remember a lady who farted at a spelling bee when I was in fourth grade. My terror is that everyone else is as sharp and merciless as I am without meaning to be.

(Not towards any of you beautiful people of course! The last times I was at meetups, I was too focused on my own awkwardness to think of it --)
posted by Countess Elena at 12:31 PM on November 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

"That is why it is important to figure out how to openly articulate one’s feelings or thoughts even when that form of expression leaves us feeling exposed or uncomfortable."

I mean, nice to know that my messiness is largely flying under the radar, I guess.
posted by All hands bury the dead at 12:51 PM on November 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

Just as the article says, the fact that the thoughts others are having about me are likely more positive than I think has zero effect, but the fact that "people aren't thinking about you, they're worrying about their own lives" isn't true has my chest tightening, lololol.

Same. if anything, it makes me worry MORE about all those people who were thinking kindly on me but I didn't know about, whose friendships I've since strained by cutting myself off from them. It's much easier to think that they simply weren't thinking about me than to think they WERE, but have now soured on me.
posted by UltraMorgnus at 1:01 PM on November 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

One of the things I've discovered during the pandemic is that almost everybody is happy to reconnect, even if it doesn't turn into weekly phone calls. Just checking in after an extended period is A-OK, and if you've been struggling or your life hasn't turned out the way you used to talk about, that's just more news and, at least personally, it all goes into the "they're still alive" bucket, which lives next to its partner, "dead because of reasons."

It's been a real eye-opener as I've entered middle age, only now starting in on my idea of a chosen family, to find that some of the members are already out there.
posted by rhizome at 1:44 PM on November 5, 2021 [9 favorites]

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