Just because: The benefits of reaching out to the people in our lives

By Jean Rhodes

Findings from an important new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “The Surprise of Reaching Out” highlights the psychological benefits of simply checking in with the people in our lives with brief texts and phone calls. Indeed, these small, casual acts of kindness can have profoundly positive effects.

Participants were asked to reach out to people in their lives in simple ways.  They defined reaching out broadly to “a gesture to check-in with someone to show that one is thinking about them—for instance, by sending a short text or call (e.g., to say hi, to say “I’m thinking of you,” to say “I hope you are well”) that may or may not include “added elements” such as saying something positive about a recipient’s traits or behaviors or expressing gratitude. Both the sender and recipient were then asked to rate how meaningful it was.

  • In a series of studies, senders underestimated how much the communication meant to the recipient. This effect persisted across both brief message and small gift reach-outs, with different types of relationships, and across both student and online adult samples.
  • The impact of the message increased with how surprising the check-in was to the recipient. Messages meant even more when the recipients hadn’t heard from the sender in a while or weren’t as close to them.

Implications (from discussion)

“When people take the initiative to reach out, they risk being rejected, and this worry could keep them from reaching out in the first place. Indeed, social rejection is a highly negative and painful social experience (Eisenberger, 2012; Leary, 2010; Williams et al., 2000) that people are motivated to avoid given the fundamental need to belong and to feel socially connected with others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Our findings take some of this challenge out by demonstrating that responders highly appreciate being reached out to and that initiators in fact systematically underestimate the extent of this appreciation.

A gesture to check-in with someone to show that one is thinking about them—e.g. sending a short message (e.g., “I’m thinking of you”) or sending a small gift. Importantly, reaching out by this broad definition could, but need not, include expressing gratitude (Kumar & Epley, 2018) or giving compliments (Zhao & Epley, 2021a). …

We hope that our findings will encourage people to reach out to their social contacts more often, “just because.” Such small gestures are likely to be appreciated more than people predict….People may underestimate the extent to which simple reach-outs may serve not just to maintain relationships but to strengthen them as well.

We would thus be remiss if we did not acknowledge the implications for the millions who are now starting to reconnect or are contemplating reconnecting with both close and distant contacts as efforts to mitigate the pandemic progress. For those treading back into the social milieu with caution and trepidation, feeling woefully out of practice and unsure, our work provides robust evidence and an encouraging green light to go ahead and surprise someone by reaching out. Such reach-outs are likely to be appreciated more than one thinks.”

Implications for mentoring: While research shows that it takes many hours to build a trusting connection,  quick check ins between mentors and mentees–even those who are no longer meeting regularly–can have unexpectedly positive effects.