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Written by Neel Shah

Edited by Andrew Neff

September 2019

Good Vibrations

How we relate to people shapes how we view them


When it comes to relationships, we often find ourselves in an ‘approach-avoidance’ dilemma. Before we dive in, we need some information, we need some idea about how they feel about us, and what they want out of a relationship. But how do we make these decisions? How do we really know what someone else thinks or feels about us?


While some of us may consider ourselves unbiased calculators, most of us rely on often faulty heuristics. For example, someone who doesn’t invest themselves in a relationship might assume that a prospective partner is also disinterested. This is particularly the case with those who are depressed, have formed insecure attachments or suffer from low-self esteem. These kinds of projections are generally built up over time in our day to day and relatively mundane interactions.


Research by Lemay and Clark (2008) suggests that our perception of a partner’s responsiveness to us is driven more by how responsive we are to them than how they actually are. They conducted a series of studies to investigate this dynamic.


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One study asked participants to recall an incident where they treated a partner badly. When recalling their own bad behaviors, they rated their partners as less responsive to them. 


They then conducted another study, instructing subjects on how to relate to a stranger. People were instructed to act either warm and engaged, or cold and disinterested. Those participants who acted warm felt that their acquaintance liked them much more, even when those acquaintances reported that they didn’t!


So why does this projection happen? The authors argue that in some ways, projection helps us in positions of uncertainty and ambiguity, helping to forge a sense of resolve in at least one of the partners. If no one ever made the first move then no one would ever get together! Our projections can help us overcome this romantic stalemate.

Although a great deal of work went into these studies (and believe me, in just trying to read their paper too!) I am not sure how genuinely enlightening their findings really are. The first two studies that I mentioned were the most interesting and revealing but the nature of the self reports can be problematic due to their relative subjectivity.


The studies are also afflicted by the age-old biases of most psychological studies due to access and demographics. 85% of study one’s participants were female, in the other, the average age of the participants was 21. It’s unfair to criticize the available sample to the researchers but its also important to note that the studies may not be generalizable to a wider population. It’s not a stretch to say there may be significant differences in relationship dynamics across cultural and religious beliefs. Can we also assume that the responses from the predominantly female sample of participants is reflective of the beliefs of both genders? There is lots of scope to expand on this research and it would be fascinating to see it conducted in a more global context. 



  1. Lemay, E. P., Jr., & Clark, M. S. (2008). How the head liberates the heart: Projection of communal responsiveness guides relationship promotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(4), 647-671.

  2. Replication -


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Skeptical Science

With a

Humanistic Touch

A Psychology and Neuroscience Blog


~~ Support Us Today on Patreon ~~

5% of our annual proceeds are donated to the John Templeton Foundation.

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