People are surprisingly reluctant to reach out to old friends

Many old friends are only a call or text message away, yet most people are hesitant to reach out
People are surprisingly reluctant to reach out to old friends

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Social relationships are a key source of health and happiness. Yet, friendships fade for a variety of reasons. For example, communication between two friends may slow and then stop when one moves to a new city for work or becomes a parent. When people lose touch with a friend they care about, are they willing to reach out?

We may assume the answer is “yes” because relationships provide an important source of well-being and meaning in our lives. Plus, old friends are people we like and are familiar with, even if it has been sometime since our last exchange. And of course,technology makes it easy and convenient to reconnect with most people these days.

Yet, research shows that people are not always as socially engaged as they could and should be. For instance, people avoid talking to strangers, even though these conversations increase short-term happiness. In a similar vein, people may be reluctant to reach out to an old friend, even though social connection is good for our well-being and old friends are likely to appreciate the gesture.

We ran a series of studies examining how willing people are to reach out to old friends. We began with two studies to understand how often people lose touch with others, and how often they reconnect. We found that most people (over 90% in one study) had an old friend that they cared about but had lost touch with. However, to our surprise, most people were neutral about the idea of reaching out to this old friend in the future and slightly negative about the idea of doing so immediately. 

Of course, people sometimes say one thing and do another. So, we conducted several experiments to see how many people actually reach out to an old friend when given the chance. In two studies, over 1,000 people were asked to identify an old friend who they wanted to reconnect with, who they thought would want to hear from them, and for whom they had contact information. Then, people were given dedicated time to draft a message to their old friend and more time to send it. Despite us trying to make reaching out to an old friend as easy as possible, only ~30% sent their message. 

Within these experiments, we also tried various strategies to encourage more people to reach out to their old friends. For instance, we encouraged people to avoid overthinking and just send their note. We also tried various things to preempt some of the exact concerns that people had revealed to us in our earlier studies. Yet, nothing we tried made a difference.

When we asked participants why they did (or did not) send their message to an old friend, they mentioned worrying about not knowing what to say after all this time or worrying that the other person had changed, and they would no longer have anything in common. We started to realize that many people were raising concerns about reaching out to old friends that were similar to concerns seen in past work about talking to strangers. So, we began to wonder: Do old friends feel like strangers once time has passed? Surely people are more willing to reach out to an old friend - someone they were once close to - than they are to reach out to a stranger?

To explore these questions, we asked people to report how willing they would be to engage in a range of everyday tasks, including reaching out to an old friend, sorting a bag of coins, booking a doctor/dental appointment, and so on. Participants were no more willing to reach out to an old friend than they were to talk to a stranger (or to pick up trash!) 

We then wondered if people are less willing to reach out to old friends who feel more like strangers (i.e., who feel less familiar). To find out, we asked people to identify several old friends and tell us how close they felt to each one and how willing they would be to reach out to them immediately. The more an old friend felt like a stranger, the less willing people were to reach out. 

If old friends can feel like strangers, might an intervention shown to reduce fears about talking to strangers encourage more people to reach out to old friends? In a recent study, people who practiced talking to strangers (as opposed to simply observing strangers) for a week became less worried about talking to strangers and were somewhat more likely to talk to strangers after the study ended. So, we adapted this strategy, and we gave some participants dedicated time to send messages to current friends and others were given time to simply browse social media. Afterwards, we encouraged participants to write and send a message to an old friend. We found that people who had practiced the desired task – sending messages – were more likely to reach out to an old friend. In fact, the brief intervention boosted reaching out by 66%. 

There are many open questions to explore from here, such as who is most likely to reach out to old friends and whether doing so makes us happy (our correlational data suggests this may be the case). 

For now though, we have learned that many people have old friends they care about but are reluctant to reach out to. While this insight brings puzzlement, we think it also offers hope and a path to greater connection. As one participant noted:  “It's heartbreaking to realize that we can so easily disappear from others' lives even with so many different ways of communication available for us. Even for some very deep connections, it just vaporized like mist in the morning.” Yet, when people did reach out, they often felt better for it. As one participant said: “That was a lovely study. I sent the message and hope that [my old friend] replies as she is so lovely.   You should be proud of all the people you have reconnected.” We hope this study will encourage more people to reach out, reconnect, and reap the benefits of doing so.

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Social Psychology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Social Psychology

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