New Study Shows: No One Likes a Person Who's Too Hard to Read


This is terrible news for robots, and also maybe for you. If you’ve ever been told you’re too hard to read—and, likely, had interpersonal trouble because of it, particularly in the first-impressions arena—new research points to the direct effect this has on your likability. Turns out that suppressing how you think and feel makes people want to stay far, far away.

Writing at Science of Us, Jesse Singal digs into research looking at first impressions formed about people who minimize their outward responses. University of Oregon researchers Allison M. Tackman and Sanjay Srivastava already knew from previous research that there were “social costs” involved in hiding how you feel—they told Singal that research goes way back, and those well-established costs involve “less social support, less satisfying social lives, and they experience trouble getting close to others”—but they weren’t sure how, exactly, this worked.

So they set up an experiment where four actors watched two scenes from two movies—one funny, one sad—and were told to either react normally or hold back. They taped their reactions and played them for 149 undergrads who saw all the versions. Sometimes the undergrads could see what the actor was watching; sometimes they couldn’t.

Then, the undergrads answered questions about what they thought about these actors’ emotions, personalities, and whether they wanted to ever hang out with them. The results were not good. Singal writes:

Overall, the suppressors were judged to be less extroverted, less agreeable, and more “avoidant in close relationships” — more distant, basically — than the non-suppressors. Suppressing also had a “large effect,” as the researchers put it, on the participants’ desire to affiliate with suppressors as compared to non-suppressors — they found them much less likable.
“What we found, in a nutshell, is that other people judge suppressors to be low in extraversion and low in agreeableness,” said Srivastava. “Or in more everyday language, they seem like the sort of people who are socially distant and indifferent to others’ feelings. And those impressions help explain why others don’t want to get close to them.”

This makes a lot of intuitive sense. Meeting someone new or interacting briefly with a stranger in any given situation—bar, coffee shop, near-death experiences support group—involves a rapid-fire exchange of body language, words, and assorted social cues that either add up to a friendly, positive experience or not. The difference often comes down to simple mutuality. Does someone respond to your cues with a rough version of a mirror, signaling acknowledgment of your feelings and openness to what you’ve got going on? Do you have the opportunity—via their own cues—to do the same?

If you don’t get that sense of mutuality, then it makes perfect sense that you won’t particularly enjoy talking to someone. That’s simple—but the factors at play are not. You could be dealing with a self-absorbed dick person, or you could be dealing with a very insecure person who simply isn’t good at this sort of thing. Some people are just stoic types; others simply feel too weirdly vulnerable when they express feelings. And if you’re factoring in things like social anxiety or being on the spectrum or basic shyness, there are any number of reasons why someone you’re talking to might not “seem” to be getting what you’re saying, or might not seem to mirror the general vibe of it.

Complicating things further is that restraint is, in some circles and contexts, a useful and valued personal quality. The problem is knowing when it doesn’t belong. How can you ever get to know someone if they are so reserved as to be unreadable? Knowing someone is knowing what they really think and feel, and I’ve always struggled to form close relationships with people who hide their feelings as a general rule—though, it’s worth noting, I tend to also always find it highly highly attractive. What gives, universe?

That said, researchers did encounter a situation where minimizing a response was considered a good thing. Singal notes that the funny clip in the study was the famous orgasm-faking scene in When Harry Met Sally, and when the undergrads were aware of the content of the clip being watched, they viewed the actors who stifled their laughter in response to that scene as more polite, owing (I’m theorizing here) to the fact that the content was “racy” and that only total jackanapes have big, stupid, open-mouthed laughs in response to dumb titillation.

So there’s one of those contexts where we do still value a more restrained response. But real life is not quite so controlled, and even though it does unfortunately involve a lot of fake orgasms—and the same general rule applies to human behavior, whether you’re having sex or a conversation. Look alive, people. Look alive.

Image via Open Road Films

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