Don't be a stranger - rekindling old frienships can be a scary as making new ones

May 5, 2024

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Don't be a stranger - rekindling old frienships can be a scary as making new ones

A team of UK psychologists have come up with a surprising finding. They discovered that people are as hesitant to reach out to an old friend as they are to strike up a conversation with a stranger, even when they had the capacity and desire to do so. The new research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Many many studies have shown that social relationships are of utmost importance to human happiness, and that the greater the number and range of friendships that we engage with, the better our wellbeing. But once relationships are formed, some will naturally wax and wane, with many of us losing touch with friends and family that we were once close with. The question the researchers wanted to answer is why should this be?

What the researchers say: “We live in a time when people are more and more disconnected and have fewer close friends than they used to in years past,” the lead author told us. "And this is despite the multitude of modern-day communication channels available to us. With research finding that it takes more than 200 hours of contact to turn a new acquaintance into a close friend, we wanted to find out if and why people were overlooking another pathway to meaningful connection: reviving pre-existing close friendships.”

Across seven studies, the psychologists examined the attitudes of almost 2,500 participants to reconnecting with lapsed friendships, the barriers, and reasons for doing so, and whether targeted interventions could encourage them to send that first message to an old friend.

“We found that the majority of participants (90 per cent) in our first study had lost touch with someone they still care about. Yet, a significant number (70 per cent) were neutral, or even negative, about the idea of getting back in touch in that moment, even when they felt warmly about the friendship,” the researchers explained.

Recognizing that people sometimes say one thing and do another, the psychologists designed a study to see how many people were willing to actually reach out to an old friend. Even when participants wanted to reconnect, thought the friend would be appreciative, had their contact information, and were given time to draft and send a message, only about a third actually sent it (28 per cent in one study and 37 per cent in another study).

The psychologists set out to benchmark this hesitance to reconnect by getting participants to rate their willingness to immediately carry out a range of activities, including calling or texting a friend they had lost touch with. They found that participants were as reluctant to reach out to an old friend as they were to strike up a conversation with a stranger -- or even to pick up rubbish.

The top reported barriers included fears that one’s old friend might not want to hear from them, that it would be ‘too awkward after all this time’ and feeling ‘guilty.’ A perception of being too busy – both the old friend and the participant – was the lowest cited reason for not reaching out.

Notably, the psychologists found that participants believed there were only a few legitimate reasons to get in touch, with the friend’s birthday reported as the most compelling. Reconnecting over the memory of a shared experience was the second most reported reason. Participants were least likely to consider getting in touch with an old friend to ask them a favor.

As part of the research, the psychologists tested targeted interventions, responding to the findings from four of the studies. Taking inspiration from previous intervention studies on talking with strangers, they found that practicing social connection with current networks by first sending a message to a warm friend, was the most successful strategy, boosting reach out rates by over two thirds.

The lead author explained: “Interestingly, despite people telling us that a key barrier to making contact with an old friend was concerns over how the message might be received, the intervention that we devised to help overcome this anxiety had little effect.

“Given that participants were as hesitant to reach out to a stranger as someone they had previously been close with, we drew inspiration from previous research I had conducted on talking to strangers, which found that practice made progress. When people were given time to practice in a situation that felt more comfortable, namely by sending messages to current friends, they were much more likely to make the leap to messaging someone they had lost touch with.

“We know from decades of research that social relationships are a key source of happiness and meaning in our lives.  We hope these findings prompt people to send that first message to someone that they miss in their lives.”

So, what? Since loneliness is, perhaps, our greatest social problem and the cause of a lot of mental and physical ill-health, this is a very timely study.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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