February 24, 2006

E-mails deliver on misinterpretation

Your message may not be getting across as clearly as you think it is. According to a study performed by researchers at the Graduate School of Business (GSB), the judgment of people interpreting messages received via e-mail was no better than chance at interpreting the intended tone of the message.

Nicholas Epley, assistant professor of behavioral science at the GSB, performed the study with Justin Kruger of New York University. Subjects were asked to interpret whether voice and e-mail messages were sarcastic or sincere. Subjects correctly understood voice messages about 75 percent of the time and electronic messages only 50 percent of the time.

Epley and Kruger also found that the subjects were unaware of their misinterpretation. Participants in the study believed that they had correctly interpreted the messages 90 percent of the time. They saw no difference between their ability to interpret voice messages and e-mails.

Epley, whose area of expertise is studying people’s ability to understand thoughts and feelings, explained, “One of the most prominent biases we find when people try to look into the minds of others is that people tend to be egocentric, assuming that others share their thoughts, feelings, intentions, and interpretations of the world more than they actually do.”

He added that this misinterpretation is more pronounced through the often-casual medium of e-mail than with other types of written communication, which are generally more formal.

The assumption that the other person understood the meaning of a statement causes miscommunications that go undetected, according to Epley.

“When feelings are hurt or people are offended, they usually keep this information to themselves and are unlikely to respond back, meaning that much of our miscommunication will do its damage without people ever knowing it,” he said. “When people do respond back with something that was clearly miscommunicated, however, the result is usually an escalation of the conflict.”-