The thought gap: we think more about each other than we think

Human interactions are complex and often characterized by misunderstandings and misinterpretations. A well-known phenomenon is the liking gap, which is the phenomenon that we tend to underestimate how much others like us. This can lead to unnecessary feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. In this article, I discuss a related concept, the thought gap, based on an article by Cooney et al. (2021). What is the thought gap, and what does it mean for our daily lives and professional interactions?

What is the thought gap?

The thought gap is the phenomenon in which people systematically underestimate the frequency with which their interlocutors think about them after mutual conversations. This arises from the asymmetrical accessibility of one's own thoughts to the thoughts of others.
Asymmetric accessibility means that people have direct access to their own thoughts and feelings, but do not have direct access to the thoughts and feelings of others. Because of this, one's own thoughts and emotions are much more prominent in their consciousness. This leads to people being more aware of their own thoughts about an interlocutor than of the thoughts the interlocutor might have about them. This unequal accessibility of one's own thoughts versus those of others results in the thought gap.
This phenomenon occurs in various social contexts and types of relationships and causes people to not be fully aware of the impact and presence of their conversations in the minds of others. Cooney et al. (2021) demonstrated the thought gap in a series of eight studies.

The eight studies and their findings

  • Study 1 examined everyday conversations in a natural setting, such as a dining room. The conclusion was that the thought gap exists in everyday conversations. The unequal access to their own thoughts and those of others causes people to underestimate the frequency of other people's thoughts about them.
  • In Study 2, introductory conversations between strangers in a controlled laboratory setting were analyzed. The findings showed that the thought gap is present in conversations between strangers. This can be explained by the fact that in new encounters, the asymmetry in access to thoughts is greater, which leads to the emergence of the thought gap.
  • Study 3 evaluated intimate conversations between friends. The results showed that the thought gap also occurs in intimate conversations among friends. Even in intimate conversations, where people are supposed to know each other better, the asymmetrical access to thoughts persists, so the thought gap persists.
  • Study 4 examined conflicts between romantic partners. The thought gap appeared to be present in such conflicts and increased in more important and intense conversations. The more this is the case, the more it dominates one's own thoughts, increasing the asymmetry in access to thoughts.
  • Study 5 encouraged participants to think about their interlocutor's thoughts. The thought gap diminished when people were encouraged to think about their interlocutor's thoughts. By consciously reflecting on the thoughts of others, people gain more insight into other people's thoughts and reduce asymmetry.
  • Study 6 examined the time course after the conversation. The conclusion was that the thought gap increases as more time passes since the conversation. As time passes, people continue to remember their own thoughts about the conversation, while the thoughts of others are less accessible, which increases the asymmetry.
  • In Study 7, the influence of the tendency to worry on the thought gap was investigated. The thought gap appeared to be influenced by the degree to which people tend to worry. People with a higher tendency to worry are more focused on their own thoughts, which reinforces the asymmetry.
  • Finally, Study 8 examined the consequences of the thought gap. The results showed that the thought gap influences the chance of reconciliation after an argument, with both thought frequency and intensity playing a role. The thought gap can thus influence the outcome of conflicts and the quality of relationships.

The relevance of the thought gap in our daily lives and work lives

The thought gap has important implications for our daily lives and professional interactions. Understanding this phenomenon can help us avoid misunderstandings, communicate more effectively, and build better relationships, both personally and professionally.
By being aware of the thought gap and trying to gain more insight into the thoughts of others, we can improve our ability to empathize and connect with others. In the workplace, this can lead to better collaboration, conflict resolution, and a higher level of satisfaction among colleagues. In our personal lives, this can result in stronger friendships and more intimate relationships with loved ones.