The development of the liking gap in children

The liking gap is an intriguing and somewhat sad phenomenon. It means we tend to think that others like us less than we like them. The liking gap has been demonstrated in adults but at what age does it start to appear?

The liking gap

In general, people tend to think unrealistically positively about themselves and their own abilities (see, for example, Alicke, 1985). An exception to this concerns their social life. We tend to think that other people have more active social lives than we do (Deri et al., 2017) and have more social contacts than we do (Whillans et al., 2017). Research by Boothby et al. (2018) showed the existence of the liking gap.

The liking gap means that after a short contact with a stranger we tend to think that the other person likes us less than he or she likes us. The liking gap has also been demonstrated in longer lasting relationships. Furthermore, research by Mastroianni et al. (2020) showed that the liking gap occurs in groups and teams.

At what age does the liking gap begin to develop?

Recent research by Wolf et al (2021) looked at the development of the liking gap in children. They found that the liking gap started to appear at age 5 and increased until age 11. At the age of around 5, they begin to meet more strangers. But this in itself does not explain the liking gap.

Awareness of self-presentation motives colors our interpretation of kindness

From around the age of 5, children begin to become concerned with other people’s evaluations of them.  And soon after, they also begin to realize that others are concerned about how they come across.

Children's cognitive development allows them to envision the self-presentation motives of others. In other words, people can behave nicely to appear good.

Before the age of 5, a child interprets friendly behavior in a simple way: the person apparently likes me. From the age of 5, the interpretation of friendly behavior is more complicated: maybe the person doesn't really like me, but he or she is just trying to look good.


The existence of the liking gap can be seen as a situation of underutilized potential that can lead to missed opportunities. We may like each other better than we think but don't do anything about it because we don't realize it. We rely on our own interpretation of how much the other person likes us and never realize that our view may be too pessimistic.

Anonymous structured feedback

I don't have a clear-cut solution to the problem caused by the liking gap. I have, however, sometimes do ne some simple exercises in teams that might act as a counterbalance to the liking gap.

By letting team members give each other feedback anonymously, on the basis of one or a few specific questions, you neutralize the self-presentation interpretation (after all, it is anonymous). The team members may then be surprised by the positive tenor of the feedback.

But this may only be a partial solution. People can still remain too pessimistic about how the other person feels about them in specific interactions.