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Feeling hesitant to text an old friend? New research says you're not alone

SFU study co-author Lara Aknin delves into the reluctance to reach out to past connections.
The project included seven studies in which the pair of psychologists examined the perceptions of about 2,500 participants regarding reconnecting with former friends, the barriers and reasons for doing so, and whether targeted interventions could encourage them to send that first message to an old friend.

Who hasn't had this feeling? A memory of an old friend comes to mind; you have a pang of wanting to reconnect, but days and then weeks go by, and you just don't. 

If that tracks for you, you aren't alone. 

New research published this week in the journal Nature Communications Psychology shows that many people hesitate to reconnect with an old friend, even if they have fond memories of that person and wish they were in touch.

Simon Fraser University psychology professor Lara Aknin and professor Gillian Sandstrom from the University of Sussex in Brighton, in the U.K., undertook the study after they reconnected. 

The pair went to grad school together at the University of British Columbia, but, over time, had lost touch.

"It was New Year's Day 2022 ... I sent her a text message saying Happy New Year, I miss you. Let's find a project to keep in touch," Aknin recalled to The Squamish Chief this week. 

"We drew some inspiration from our period of disconnection, thinking that it would be fun to look at what are the reasons that people find and use to reach out to old friends."

But as they got started, they kept bumping into the fact that, unlike Aknin, many people weren't willing to reach out. 

"We just kept finding that people were saying, 'I certainly have an old friend that meets this criteria. But I am not going to reach out.' And we were just dumbfounded by this," said Aknin, who is also the director of the Helping and Happiness Lab at SFU alongside being the co-author of the research paper.

And so the project pivoted to documenting this reality and how difficult it was to nudge people to make that move to contact an old friend. 

By the numbers

The project included seven studies in which the pair of psychologists examined the perceptions of about 2,500 participants regarding reconnecting with former friends, 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%] in our first study had lost touch with someone they still care about. Yet, a significant number [70%] were neutral, or even negative, about the idea of getting back in touch in that moment, even when they felt warmly about the friendship,” said Aknin in an SFU news release.

Their research found that even when study participants wanted to reconnect, believed the friend would be appreciative of the gesture, had their contact information, and were given time in the study to draft and send a short message, only 28% in one study and 37% in another study actually sent a message. 

Why so hesitant? 

Aknin said that some later studies suggest that one reason people don't reach out to old friends is that they start to feel like strangers after some time has passed.

"Supporting this possibility, we find that people are no more willing to reach out to an old friend than they are to talk to a stranger and that people are less willing to reach out to old friends who feel less familiar—more like strangers," reads the paper's conclusion. 

In their last study, though, the pair found that if people have practice making connections, they are more able to take the step with a lapsed friendship.

"We just gave people three minutes to practice sending messages to people in their current friends and family [group]—the people they frequently interact with," Aknin said. 

After that, the participants were asked to contact an old friend within a few minutes. 

This seemed to move the dial slightly on those who would reach out to people from their past.

"We found that the people who had practised sending messages to their current friends and family were significantly more likely to send the message to an old friend. It went from 31% in the control condition to 53% in the experimental condition." 

The point is that practice makes perfect when it comes to taking the risk of reaching out to old friends. 

Why does this matter?

The psychologists note that many studies have found that social connection is important to human happiness. 

"And that the greater the number and range of friendships that we engage with, the better our well-being," reads the news release. 


Aknin said the researchers hope this study inspires more people to reach out to old friends. 

"I think we often underestimate how well it's going to go and how much the other person appreciates it. I think, in many situations, we get a sense [that] people might be OK hearing from us. But I think people often appreciate it way more than we see," she said. 

"There's also some value in normalizing this hesitancy; you're not the only one."

Study 2 of the project found that when participants imagined being the one on the receiving side of being contacted by an old friend, they were way more positive about it."

She said that while social media can be a double-edged sword, making people feel more isolated compared to others' seemingly perfect, friend-filled lives, it also offers some familiarity that can give opportunities to connect over what an old friend posts.

"We get all these reminders of what's going on. We know their kid has graduated, we know their kid just lost their first tooth. We know they just got back from Bermuda. At least there's this sense of familiarity ... even if we haven't spoken to them for days, weeks, months, years." 

What is next?

Aknin said that their research so far has opened up even more questions of inquiry for future studies for psychologists. 

For example, they wonder if different personality types respond differently and if those who culled more friendships during COVID-19 restrictions are more inclined to reach out to old friends, among other follow-up study possibilities. 

Read the full study, People are surprisingly hesitant to reach out to old friends, in Nature Communications Psychology.


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