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Kids as young as five underestimate how much their peers like them

A striking paper in Psychological Science in 2018 revealed consistent evidence for the “liking gap” — that other people like us more than we think. Now, for the first time, researchers have looked at how this phenomenon arises during childhood. The study, led by Wouter Wolf at Duke University, US, on children aged 4 to 11, found that the liking gap emerged by around 5, and then grew wider with age. The findings have theoretical but also practical implications: parents and teachers can reassure kids that their judgements about what their peers think of them are likely to be overly negative, which could be of particular help to those who are worried about their relationships with classmates.

Wolf and his colleagues recruited pairs of children who didn’t 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-item emoticon scale, which ranged from a crying face to a beaming face, to rate their feelings about the other child (how much they liked the other boy or girl, wanted to play with them again, and wanted them to be their friend) and to indicate what ratings they thought their partner would give them. The difference between a child’s perceptions of their partner’s ratings of them and their partner’s actual ratings gave a “liking gap” score for each participant.

Data on a total of 261 children were included in the analysis. The gender make-up of the pairs made no difference to the results. However, age did: a liking gap appeared by around the age of five, and was more extreme as age increased.

The causes for the gap among the youngest and older children were different, though. When the gap first emerged, it was driven by more positive partner evaluations — five-year-olds liked other kids more than four-year-olds did. The team thinks this reflects greater exposure to children (kindergarten enrolment is mandatory at five in the area of the US where the study was conducted), which could reduce anxiety about strangers and make social interactions more enjoyable.

The expansion of the liking gap after age five was driven by something different, however: as they grew older, the kids had increasingly less positive perceptions of their partner’s feelings about them. “This suggests that after the emergence of the liking gap between ages four and five, its subsequent development is primarily driven by increased social concern with other people’s evaluations of the self,” the team writes.

This would fit with other work finding that children develop a more complex theory of mind around age six, when they also start to become more concerned about the impression they are making on others. They may start to realise, for example, that another child might be being friendly because they want to come across as friendly and likeable, rather than because that other child is genuinely enjoying their company. As the gap widened with age, this suggests that, up to 11, at least, children become less certain about what another child’s behaviour really signals.

Individual differences might influence the scale of an individual’s liking gap. “It is not implausible that, in some cases, shyness, social anxiety or insecure attachment could be a manifestation or a consequence of a relatively high discrepancy between how much children like other people and how much they think other people generally like them back,” the team notes.

Clearly, more work is needed to explore this. But perhaps simply explaining the existence of the liking gap to kids might be one way to improve how children feel about their interactions with their peers, especially with strangers — when joining a new school, say. That’s a study I’d really like to see.

The Development of the Liking Gap: Children Older Than 5 Years Think That Partners Evaluate Them Less Positively Than They Evaluate Their Partners

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest