U. CHICAGO (US) — Couples and close friends may think they’re on the same wavelength, but a new study shows they don’t always convey messages to each other as well as they think.
“People commonly believe that they communicate better with close friends than with strangers. That closeness can lead people to overestimate how well they communicate, a phenomenon we term the ‘closeness-communication bias,'” says Boaz Keysar, a professor in psychology at the University of Chicago.
Keysar’s colleague Kenneth Savitsky, professor of psychology at Williams College, devised an experiment resembling a parlor game to study the issue. In it, two sets of couples sat in chairs with their backs to each other and tried to discern the meaning of each other’s ambiguous phrases. In all, 24 married couples participated.
Is it hot in here?
The researchers used phrases common in everyday conversations to see if the spouses were better at understanding phrases from their partners than from people they did not know. The spouses consistently overestimated their ability to communicate, and did so more with their partners than with strangers.
“A wife who says to her husband, ‘it’s getting hot in here,’ as a hint for her husband to turn up the air conditioning a notch, may be surprised when he interprets her statement as a coy, amorous advance instead,” says Savitsky, who is lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“Although speakers expected their spouse to understand them better than strangers, accuracy rates for spouses and strangers were statistically identical. This result is striking because speakers were more confident that they were understood by their spouse,” Savitsky says.
“Some couples may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think. You get rushed and preoccupied, and you stop taking the perspective of the other person, precisely because the two of you are so close,” he said.
Savitsky conducted a similar experiment with 60 Williams College students. In the study, the students overestimated their effectiveness in communicating with friends, replicating the pattern found with married couples.
Communication problems arise when a speaker assumes that a well-known acquaintance has all the information the speaker has, removing the need for a long explanation, Keysar says. When people meet a stranger, they automatically provide more information because they don’t have a “closeness bias” in that encounter.
In the same way, listeners may wrongly assume that a comment or request from a close acquaintance is based on knowledge that the two have in common—a mistake the listener would not make with a stranger.
In order to test that idea, a team at Keysar’s lab set up an experiment in which two students would sit across from each other, separated by a box with square compartments that contained objects. Some of the objects were not visible to one of the students. That student, the speaker, would ask the partner to move one of the objects—but the speaker did not know that the request could be interpreted in two different ways.
For example, if the speaker asked the partner to move a mouse, the partner would have two options: a computer mouse that the speaker could see, or a stuffed mouse that the speaker could not see.
The study found that when partners were asked to move an object with an ambiguous name, they would hesitate longer if the speaker was a friend. But if the speaker was a stranger, the partner would be faster to focus on the object that the speaker could see, and ignore the object that the speaker did not know about.
‘Illusion of insight’
This showed that the participants were more likely to take an egocentric position when working with a friend, neglecting to consider the possibility that the friend didn’t share the same information they had.
“Our problem in communicating with friends and spouses is that we have an illusion of insight. Getting close to someone appears to create the illusion of understanding more than actual understanding,” says co-author Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
“The understanding, ‘What I know is different from what you know’ is essential for effective communication to occur,” Savitsky says. “It is necessary for giving directions, for teaching a class, or just for having an ordinary conversation. But that insight can be elusive when the ‘you’ in question is a close friend or spouse.”
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