By Emma Young
A striking paper in psychology in 2018, there was consistent evidence of the “liking gap” – that other people like us more than we think. For the first time, researchers have now investigated how this phenomenon occurs in childhood. The study of children aged 4 to 11, led by Wouter Wolf at Duke University, USA, found that the sympathy gap appeared by about 5 and then increased with age. The results have theoretical as well as practical implications: parents and teachers can reassure children that their judgments about what their classmates think of them are likely to be too negative, which could be especially helpful for those concerned about their relationships with classmates do.
Wolf and his colleagues recruited two children who did not know each other from a local museum and other events. They first spent five minutes building a tower together. Then each child used a seven-point emoticon scale, ranging from a crying face to a beaming face, to gauge how much they felt about the other child (how much they liked the other boy or girl wanted to play with him again and wanted) them to be her boyfriend) and indicate what reviews they think their partner would give them. The difference between a child’s perceptions of their partner’s ratings and their partner’s actual ratings resulted in a “liking gap” score for each participant.
Data from a total of 261 children were included in the analysis. The gender composition of the couples did not affect the results. Age did it, however: around the age of five, a sympathy gap appeared that became more extreme with age.
However, the causes of the gap between the youngest and older children varied. When the divide first emerged, it was driven by more positive partner reviews – five-year-olds liked other kids more than four-year-olds. The team believes this reflects greater exposure to children (the area of the United States where the study was conducted made kindergarten age five mandatory), which reduces fear of strangers and makes social interactions more enjoyable could do.
However, the widening of the sympathy gap after the age of five was driven by something else: with increasing age, the children had more and more Fewer positive perception of her partner’s feelings about her. “This suggests that after the likelihood gap occurs between four and five years of age, its further development is mainly driven by increasing social concern about other people’s self-assessments,” the team writes.
This would fit in with other research showing that children around the age of six develop a more complex theory of mind when they are also more concerned about the impression they make on others. For example, they may recognize that another child is being friendly because they want to appear friendly and personable, not because the other child really enjoys their company. Since the gap widened with age, this suggests that children until at least 11 years old are becoming more insecure, which is really signaling another child’s behavior.
Individual differences can affect the extent of a person’s disaffection gap. “It is not implausible that in some cases shyness, social anxiety, or insecure attachments may be a manifestation or consequence of a relatively large discrepancy between how much children like other people and how much they think others think of them in general like. ”the team notes.
It is clear that more work is needed to investigate this. But maybe just explaining the existence of the sympathy gap to children – when they go to a new school – could be a way to improve children’s relationships with their peers, especially strangers. This is a study that I would really like to see.
– The development of the “Liking Gap”: children over 5 years of age believe that partners rate them less positively than their partners
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles