People surprisingly reluctant to reach out to old friends

Relationships with friends and family provide a sense of meaning and purpose, bu
Relationships with friends and family provide a sense of meaning and purpose, but 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 have the ability and desire to do so.
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 have the capacity and desire to do so, according to a new joint study by researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of Sussex.

Published this morning in Nature Communications Psychology, a paper by co-authors SFU Professor Lara Aknin and Gillian Sandstrom at the University of Sussex in Brighton (U.K.), looks at whether and why people are reluctant to reach out to rekindle old relationships.

"Our relationships with friends and family provide a sense of meaning and purpose in life," says Aknin, Director of the Helping and Happiness Lab. "From day to day, our social relations help us through good times - by standing at our side at graduations, weddings and dinners - and bad times, like sickness, breakups and car trouble."

Across a series of 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," says Sandstrom.

Even when participants wanted to reconnect, thought their friend would be appreciative, had their friend’s contact information, and were given time to draft and send a message, only about a third of people actually sent their message (28 per cent in one study and 37 per cent in another study).

The authors were surprised that people were so reluctant to reach out to old friends. In fact, in one study people reported being no more willing to reach out to an old friend as they were to pick up trash or talk to a stranger.

Relationships can fade for a variety of reasons (work, parenthood, busy lives), and neglecting them for too long can be problematic as it could result in loneliness, which can lead to mental and physical health challenges.

Reaching out to an old friend, through email, text message or phone call, could be an easy way (and a more efficient way than creating new friendships) to bolster and diversify our social connections.

So why is it so difficult to re-connect with people that were once so close to us?

It is a complex question, Aknin admits, but essentially people start to see old friends as strangers and the psychological distance makes them more reluctant to reach out.

Barriers identified in the paper included fears that one’s old friend might not want to hear from them, or that it would be too awkward, or feelings of guilt.

However, just because we are reluctant to reach out, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, Aknin adds.

"We may be reluctant to reach out, but most people tend to report feeling happier after sending their message to an old friend. Moreover, other research finds that old friends are pleasantly surprised to receive such efforts. So, we recommend that people take the plunge and hit send."

How to reconnect

If you have someone you want to reach out to, but feel hesitant, Sandstrom and Aknin found something that might help - practice by sending messages to current friends first.

While reaching out to current friends may seem like a surprising way to encourage reaching out to old friends, the strategy takes guidance from Sandstrom’s previous research on what strategies help people talk to strangers where she found that practice makes progress.

By giving people a chance to practice in a situation that felt more comfortable, the researchers found that they could increase the number of people willing to reach out to an old friend by two-thirds.