It’s human nature to seek approval from others. We’ve generally needed to leverage our connections with people in order to survive. But beyond safety in numbers, humans are social animals, and the need to bond with others and find our own pockets of belonging are essential to our mental wellbeing.
And our need for social approval stems far and wide — a quick Google search for 'how to be likeable' serves over nine million results, with plenty of 'How To's and tips to curb your most unlikeable behaviours.
Luckily, life, for most of us, is not Survivor, and we don't need to be so acutely tuned into the power dynamics of our friendship groups — not in any conscious way, anyway. For the most part, we hardly ever stop to consider just why we like the people we do and why people may or may not like us.
Some of us go off the intangible ‘vibes’ or look for similarities, while some may get more specific with music taste or even star signs. But while there's really no right or wrong way to get along with someone, there is actually some science to it.
According to decades of research, people skills, and what makes popular people popular has long been a concern of human beings. And according to countless studies, there are plenty of evolutionary factors (and emotions) involved in whether or not we find a person to be likeable or not.
Below, we take a little dip into just some of the key ways we humans tend to attract — or deter, in some cases — others.
The Pratfall Effect
The Pratfall Effect actually goes against anything you picked up in the matrix that is high school social dynamics. It not only suggests that people who make mistakes are more likely to be viewed as likeable, but it also implies that those who are perceived to be ‘perfect’ and ‘faultless’ can become actively unlikeable.
The findings came from a study conducted by social psychologist Elliot Aronson in the 1960s who recorded a group of people answering trivia questions. Those who made a blunder or slipped up (say, by spilling coffee on themselves) were rated to be more likeable by way of relatability than the people who didn’t.
And it makes sense. As Brené Brown consistently urges, vulnerability involves courage and ultimately helps us forge connections with others, which is probably why it's perceived as an endearing quality.
A fundamental theory of likability is that we like what is similar to us. This can refer to both the way we actually are, or the way we aspire to be.
For example, studies have shown that actual commonalities played less of an influence in the likability of a person than their perceived commonalities. And you'd know what we mean if you've ever been convinced that you would get along with someone just from their grid 'vibes' or if you're willing to admit that you've been drawn to a person who outwardly displays similar taste to you.
The reasoning for this has been highlighted in a study that chalked it up to cognitive evaluation — where we latch on to one characteristic of a person and tend to fill in the gaps, generalising all the other ways we may be compatible or not.
Ironically, the study also found the self-expansion was another key element to this phenomenon. Subjects reported feeling that they could gain more and experience opportunities for growth from interactions with people that were similar, rather than dissimilar.
Basically, we're all just suckers for validation and spend much of life searching for our tribe.
Flattery will get you far
There’s a lot of truth to the old adage.
Feeling valued and appreciated, even for small, everyday tasks that don't necessarily require a specific set of skills, makes us feel all gooey inside and stimulates our brain in a similar way to how we feel when we are rewarded money, according to one study.
The study, which took place in 2012, found that people tend to perform better at exercises after being complimented, urging the importance of positive reinforcement, particularly when it comes to learning and rehabilitation. Even non-verbal cues such as appearing to be actively listening or nodding can be encouraging.
As human beings navigating a precarious and critical world, we are inherently hyper-concerned with ourselves. It’s natural! So the right reminder that we’re getting something right, or looking cute while we do it can actually go a long way.
After all, people remember how you make them feel, so maybe pay it forward with the odd bit of flattery — just make sure to keep things appropriate.
Keep your cool
You've likely heard the term 'try-hard' hurled around as an insult in your teens. But beyond being the antithesis of cool as a wee youth, there's actually some science behind why we're deterred by those we view to be sycophantic.
As much as people love a bit of flattery, research shows we like people who like us, a surefire way to land yourself on someone’s Ick radar is by going too hard on the admiration. Of course, this is mostly the case when the attention stems from those we are unfamiliar with, but nevertheless, it can really make a person feel uncomfortable
It's not a simple matter by any means, though, but particularly when it comes to attention and compliments, nice gestures can quickly become excessive, so try to keep your wits about you.
Ultimately, likability is extremely subjective and never formulaic when push comes to shove. Not only that, but working to please other people can come at the expense of our own mental health, so above all, be kind and be yourself.