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Communication breakdown more likely between close friends than strangers

Some say communication is the key to a healthy relationship, but that may be particularly difficult, according to a new University study.

Published in the current issue of Cognitive Science, the study found that close friends and associates are prone to more misunderstandings than strangers.

Because close friends and associates share a large pool of common information, they make assumptions that frequently result in miscommunication.

“Language is inherently ambiguous; anything you say can be interpreted in more than one way,” said Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology and one of the study’s authors, in an e-mail interview. “We are not sensitive to the inherent ambiguity of what we say; therefore, we don’t attempt to correct it in many cases.”

Keysar said he encounters these ambiguities all the time: a newspaper headline reading “Kids Make Nutritious Snacks;” a note at a conference telling attendees, “For anyone who has children and doesn’t know it, there is a daycare on the first floor;” or Keysar’s favorite, a sign on Lake Shore Drive prior to a Rolling Stones concert which told drivers to “Avoid LSD tonight.”

People are careful to avoid such ambiguities when communicating with strangers but are less cautious when talking with friends. “You are assuming that the other person will be able to understand you when you have a lot in common,” Keysar said.

The study was based on a communication game involving 40 pairs of U of C students. The volunteers were divided into “directors” and “addressees.” Directors had to memorize the names and descriptions of 24 unusual figures. The addressees were divided into groups: Half of them memorized six figures, and the other half memorized 18.

Addressees had to use information the directors provided to pick out the correct shape on a computer monitor. In all cases the directors were aware of how much the addressees knew.

Among pairs with a large pool of shared information (i.e. addressees who knew 18 shapes), directors tended to give shape names, which confused the addressees. Such pairs were almost twice as likely to ask more questions before picking the correct shape.

The overall result of the game “is analogous to people who share a lot of professional information,” Keysar said. For example, two doctors, even if they don’t know each other personally, tend to assume a broad base of shared knowledge and disregard ambiguities. This can lead to confusion if one of them brings in new information.

Keysar said he experiences the phenomenon personally when communicating with students and colleagues. “When I present to students, I go to great lengths to explain and illustrate my points…. [On the other hand,] it is very difficult to keep in mind that your colleagues do not share the knowledge of your new research.”

However, Keysar cautioned against trying to communicate too clearly. “It is both difficult and unnatural. Instead, I suggest to people to anticipate misunderstandings and to be more generous in their interpretation of conflict,” he said.