On the reality show Bachelor in Paradise contestant Ashley I. has become known for loving her good friend Jared H., whom she has pursued (mostly) unsuccessfully for two seasons, never giving up hope that he might someday come around. Although Ashley may seem delusional, she is beloved by fans, who see her as relatable—one way or another, we’ve all been there.

     Juliana Breines Ph.D.
    Juliana Breines Ph.D. is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island. She received her Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and her B.A. from the University of Michigan. Her research examines how social experiences shape the way people treat themselves, and how positive and negative forms of self-treatment (e.g., self-compassion, self-criticism) impact health and well-being.

Editor:  Saad Shaheed

It’s unclear whether Ashley will get her happy ending, but we do know this: When it comes to taking a friendship to the next level, wishful thinking may not be a total waste of time.

New research conducted by Edward Lemay and Noah Wolf suggests that overestimating a friend’s romantic interest can sometimes create a self-fulfilling prophecy, eliciting genuine romantic feelings from the other person over time.

How does this work?

First, having feelings for someone can skew our perceptions of their feelings for us, leading us to assume they feel the same way—even if they don’t.

This sort of misperception might seem dysfunctional. Many people assume that it’s healthier to recognize when someone is “just not that into you” rather than cling to false hope.

But there’s another way to look at it: When we’re confident about another person’s interest in us, we’re more likely to behave in ways that others find attractive, like flirting or initiating plans instead of avoiding them or pretending not to care. These attractive behaviors might, in turn, spark the other person’s romantic interest, potentially transforming your platonic relationship into a romantic one.

Lemay and Wolf tested this hypothesis in two studies. In the first, pairs of heterosexual, cross-sex platonic friends independently filled out questionnaires asking:

  1. Whether they had any romantic interest in their friend.
  2. Whether they believed their friend had any romantic interest in them.
  3. How often they engaged in romantic behaviors (e.g., flirting, looking deep into their friend’s eyes, trying to look attractive).

Results showed that participants who were interested in their friend believed that their friend felt the same way, regardless of how their friend actually felt. Both men and women demonstrated this bias, though it was somewhat stronger for men. Women who were not interested in their friend were more likely to underestimate their friend's feelings for them, but men in this position were not. (These gender differences were explained by the fact that men were more likely to be romantically interested in their female friends than vice versa.)

Results also showed that overestimators—male or female—engaged in more frequent romantic behaviors, supporting the researchers’ predictions.

The second study examined whether overestimators’ more frequent romantic behaviors could in fact create a self-fulfilling prophecy—that is, whether these behaviors would be associated with actual increases in their friends’ romantic interest over time.

This time, pairs of friends filled out questionnaires once a week for five weeks. As in Study One, participants tended to overestimate the extent to which their friend reciprocated their own romantic interest, and overestimation was related to increased romantic behaviors.

These romantic behaviors were not in vain: They were associated with increases in friend's romantic interest, consistent with the researchers’ central hypothesis that overestimation can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether the reciprocated interest ultimately led the friendships in the study to take a romantic turn is unknown—in some cases, heightened interest might just stem from the enjoyment of feeling desired and be fleeting—but it certainly seems possible.

Can we really make someone fall in love with us through wishful thinking? Clearly it doesn’t always work this way—if it did, there would be far fewer broken hearts in the world—but sometimes, it seems, it can happen. Far from being dysfunctional, optimism and persistence can actually pay off. By contrast, assuming that a friend could never like us the way we like them could lead us to behave in ways that squelch any chance of a romantic connection.

That said, there are two important caveats to consider:

  1. Lemay and Wolf’s findings were moderated by participants’ perceptions of their own and their friend's desirability as romantic partners. Not surprisingly, participants who saw themselves as more desirable were more likely to overestimate their friend's desire for them, but their friend's perceptions also mattered: Friends were only wooed when they saw the other person as desirable, suggesting that there might be some limits to the power of wishful thinking.
  2. Overestimating a friend’s interest and making romantic advances as a result can sometimes backfire in a major way. If the other person is not receptive to the advances and does not communicate consent, it’s essential to respect that person’s wishes and stop pursuing them. Failure to do so can lead to the end of a friendship and in some cases, accusations of harassment and incidents of assault.

In sum, romantic illusions may be more functional than they appear. They give us the courage to pursue the people we’re interested in, even if it means risking rejection. If we were all afraid to make the first move, relationships would rarely form. Maybe Ashley I. is on to something.

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