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First Encounters: How to Behave if You Want to Be Liked

Better be more friendly and less boastful to win friends.

Key points

  • Being liked by others is important for our survival and well-being.
  • Research has explored which behaviors predict liking in social situations.
  • Communal behaviors predict both general popularity and being liked in one-on-one situations.
  • Agentic behaviors may help your popularity, but may hinder you in one-on-one situations.
Matheus Bertelli
Source: Matheus Bertelli

When meeting other people for the first time, how should one behave to be liked?

When given a choice, most of us would prefer being liked by—and popular with—members of our social group. Human beings spend much energy on becoming socially accepted, and for good reasons. Those who like and esteem us are more likely to offer protection, encouragement, and support when times are bad. And times will get bad at some point. Social standing is an evolutionary insurance policy, shielding one from all kinds of risks. No wonder psychologists have long been interested in the dynamics of interpersonal liking and group popularity.

A useful framework for studying social relations was developed by David Kenny of the University of Connecticut. In his Social Relations Model, one person’s view of another is broken into three components: perceiver, target, and relationship. “The perceiver effect reflects how the person tends to see others; the target effect reflects how a person is seen in general by others; and the relationship effect reflects how a perceiver uniquely sees the target,” he writes.

By way of analogy, if we wish to analyze the relation between Mary and her little lamb, “the perceiver effect would represent how much Mary, on average, likes little lambs; the target effect reflects how much the little lamb is liked by others; and the relationship effect is how much Mary likes her little lamb.”

Thus, in the model, liking can be examined in two ways. On a more general level, we can study how certain behavioral choices and tendencies make one popular within a group (target effect). On a more personal level, we can study how certain behaviors make one uniquely liked by their immediate dyadic partner (relationship effect). Both are socially advantageous, yet they are not one and the same, and the forces that shape them may differ.

Psychological research has long shown that when judging others, people tend to base their evaluations on two main categories: agency and communion (also known as warmth and competence). We look at how competent or powerful a person is, and how friendly and trustworthy they are. As I’ve written before, both qualities are important to judge early and accurately. From an evolutionary perspective, separating friend from foe and competent from incompetent is crucial for survival. You want to surround yourself with people who not only want to but also can help you.

A recent (2023) study by German psychologists Michael Dufner and Sascha Krause set out to explore whether specific behaviors associated with agency and communion predict popularity and/or unique liking. They designed a round-robin pre-post study in which 139 young adults were assigned to same-sex groups of four to six members, all previously unacquainted. In each group, members first provided liking ratings of each other based on pictures and a brief group introduction. Then, every member of the group had a five-minute one-on-one conversation with every other member, after which they completed similar liking ratings again. Additionally, the conversations were recorded on video and the individuals in each interaction were rated by trained observers on four agentic behaviors (leading, dominant, confident, boastful) and four communal behaviors (polite, benevolent, warm, friendly).

The authors ran a series of analyses to explore how various behaviors affected popularity within groups and unique liking within dyads. Results showed that all agentic and communion behaviors significantly predicted popularity, although, taken together, the communion behaviors were a stronger predictor than agentic behaviors. When it came to unique liking, however, two specific communion behaviors (benevolent and friendly behavior) and the composite score of communion behavior were significantly and positively correlated with higher ratings. Further analysis found that “when communal behavior is held constant, behaving in a uniquely agentic fashion toward specific others might even reduce one’s unique liking.”

Regarding general popularity, the authors conclude: “The current findings indicate that actors who generally behaved in a communal fashion toward others were generally popular,” yet “popularity was also incrementally predicted by agentic behavior, which means that…people who generally show agentic behavior might also be generally liked.”

As for unique liking, the authors conclude: “The results indicate that uniquely behaving in a communal fashion toward a specific other evokes unique liking... By contrast, uniquely behaving in an agentic fashion toward a specific other does not appear to evoke unique liking by that other. Quite the contrary, when communal behavior was controlled for, showing higher than usual levels of agentic behavior toward a particular other was even linked to being uniquely disliked by that other.”

The study is not without limitations. The authors note that the sample of young, Western adults may not represent the population at large well. The effects may differ by age or culture. Moreover, people’s reactions may differ in different social contexts, and it may depend heavily on the goal. Interaction partners may approve of agentic behavior if it serves their own goals and disapprove of it if they feel undermined. Likewise, the interactions in this study were few and short, without future expectations. People’s reactions may follow a different pattern if they expect further encounters down the road. Moreover, aspects of the interaction not studied here (e.g., nervousness) may significantly impact early impression formation. Finally, the study focused on same-sex pairs. The dynamics may shift with opposite-sex interactions.

Still, the study provides useful data to suggest that when looking to become more socially accepted and liked, communion behaviors—warmth and friendliness—are across-the-board winners. Agentic behaviors (boastfulness, domination), however, are a mixed bag. While they may advance your general popularity within a group, they may also hinder your ability to make new friends.

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