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Reaching out is more appreciated than you probably think




Can you think of someone you know, who you haven’t spoken to in a while? What’s stopping you from reaching out to that person? Maybe you're underestimating how much they’d enjoy hearing from you. Recent research supports this, suggesting that people often don't realize how much their acquaintances value being reached out to.


As part of our effort to combat the replication crisis in psychology (via our Transparent Replications project), we ran a replication study to check this result.


Our study replicated the result, thereby providing further evidence that people considering reaching out to acquaintances underestimate how much those acquaintances would appreciate being reached out to. (At least, for people in the U.S. where we performed the replication).


In this email, we’re going to break down our replication study, as well as our evaluation of the original, but if you just want to know how to apply these results to your own life, you can skip to the section titled "What this means for you".



Summary of Study and Results


The original study had 201 participants, and our replication study had 742 (we increased the number to ensure >80% statistical power). Each participant was first asked to think of an acquaintance with whom they have pleasant interactions and with whom they haven’t communicated recently. Once they had done that, they were put into one of two groups:



Group 1: Initiators


These participants were told to consider reaching out to their selected acquaintance, and then asked to rate the extent to which they thought the acquaintance would:

  • Appreciate it

  • Feel grateful

  • Feel thankful

  • Feel pleased

Their responses to these questions were then averaged to form the “appreciation index” which was the study’s dependent variable.



Group 2: Responders


These participants were told to imagine that their chosen acquaintance is thinking of them and reaches out to them. Then they were asked to rate the same attributes as in group 1, but about the extent to which they (the participant) would feel these emotions as a consequence. These ratings were also turned into an "appreciation index" score.



In this study, an independent-samples t-test was used to compare the appreciation index between the two experimental groups, helping answer the question: would people be more appreciative hearing from acquaintances than they think acquaintances would be hearing from them?


The original study found a statistically significant difference between the appreciation index in the two groups, suggesting that the answer is yes, because the Responder group’s appreciation index was higher. We found the same result in our replication study:



We also conducted some additional tests, to check some assumptions. These were a bit more complicated but can be read about in the full write-up of this replication study.


This appears to be evidence that people considering reaching out to acquaintances underestimate how much those acquaintances would appreciate being reached out to.


Of course, it is usually the case (even with the most well-designed studies) that results can be explained in multiple ways, and this study is no exception. For example, it is possible that when participants were asked to think of an acquaintance, they weren’t thinking of any old acquaintance and instead tended to think of acquaintances that they’d particularly like to hear from but whom they aren’t sure would be as interested in hearing from them. If this was happening consistently, it would skew the results in favor of the outcome we found.


However, although the original study and our replication did not rule out that explanation, we are not convinced it is the best explanation (or the entire explanation, if it plays a role at all). That’s because this study is only one of 13 studies reported in the original paper. The other studies in that paper have different designs but test either:


  1. the same key hypothesis (i.e., that people considering reaching out to acquaintances underestimate how much those acquaintances would appreciate being reached out to), or

  2. the authors’ proposed mechanism for this phenomenon (i.e., that the pleasant surprise experienced by the responders increases their appreciation for being reached out to, but initiators don’t take the surprise factor into account when attempting to predict how much their reaching out will be appreciated).


For example, one of the other studies required people to remember a time they reached out to someone or a time that someone reached out to them, and then answer questions about how much they appreciated the outreach. Other studies involved going onto a college campus and having people write short messages to reach out to a friend they hadn’t spoken to in a while.


The fact that the authors of the original study found consistent results across the different kinds of studies they conducted provides clearer evidence supporting their hypothesis over possible alternative explanations.



Our verdict on the original study


We rate studies according to three criteria: transparency, replicability, and clarity. Here’s the breakdown of how we rated the study in the original paper.



Transparency

(How transparent was the original study?)


✅ The experimental materials, analysis code, and data are all publicly available.

✅ The study was pre-registered, and the plan stated in the pre-registration was followed.

Replicability

(To what extent were we able to replicate the findings of the original study?)


✅ This study had one main finding, and that result replicated when we rebuilt the study from scratch and re-ran it on a new batch of study participants.

Clarity

(How unlikely is it that the study will be misinterpreted?)


✅ The study was almost entirely clear and easy to interpret.

❌ The one area where misinterpretation might occur is: the authors describe the study as involving reaching out with a “brief message,” but the study itself does not appear to have required initiators to imagine reaching out in this way, or in any specific way (e.g., with a brief message or a gift or something else). The description of the study in the paper is likely to lead readers to a slightly mistaken understanding of what participants were told to do in the study.

What this means for you


This study suggests that your acquaintances likely value your outreach more than you might expect. So, if you've been hesitating to reconnect with someone, consider this as encouragement to take the first step.


If you reach out to an acquaintance and they respond positively, it's easy to worry that they are simply humoring you and don’t really appreciate it. Fortunately, the results of this study suggest that, often, they really do appreciate it.


And, finally, this study underscores an important lesson about perspectives. When you're contemplating reaching out to someone but are held back by worries, imagining the roles reversed (so that you are receiving a message from an old friend or acquaintance) reveals that things aren't necessarily as they seem from just one side of the interaction. By routinely practicing this kind of shift in perspective, you can uncover valuable insights into how your actions are perceived and appreciated by others. It reminds us that our own apprehensions don’t always align with others’ reactions.


If you found this interesting, you might enjoy diving into our selection of free, interactive, research-based tools for building and improving your relationships:



We conducted this study as part of our Transparent Replications project by Clearer Thinking. This project aims to greatly increase the probability that new psychology papers in top journals are replicated shortly after publication so that high-quality results are celebrated while non-replicable results are almost immediately uncovered, and researchers have a fast-acting incentive to not publish false positives or misleading results in top journals. If you’d like to support this project or get involved (including, potentially, volunteering to run replications of studies), here’s how:



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