Some couples communicate worse than strangers

A study has revealed that married couples do not always convey messages to their better halves as well as they think and in some cases, the spouses communicate no better than strangers.
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Updated on Jan 21, 2011 02:14 PM IST
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ANI | By, Washington
Married couples live with the illusion that they communicate well with their partners. But a new study could be an eye-opener for them.

It has revealed that married couples do not always convey messages to their better halves as well as they think and in some cases, the spouses communicate no better than strangers.

Psychologists also found the same communication problem with close friends.

"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’," said Boaz Keysar, a professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on communications.

Keysar’s colleague Kenneth Savitsky, professor of psychology at Williams College in Williamstown, devised an experiment resembling a parlour game to study the issue.

The researchers had 24 married couples sit with their backs to each other and were asked to decipher the meaning behind ambiguous phrases used in everyday conversation.

The goal was to see if the spouses were better at understanding their partners than strangers. They found the spouses consistently overestimated their ability to communicate, and did so more with their partners than with strangers.

“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,” said Savitsky.

“Some couples may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think,” he added.

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, said Keysar.

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, the researchers 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.

The study found that when partners were asked to move an object with an ambiguous name, they would hesitate longer when the speaker was a friend. But when 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.

This showed that the participants were more likely to take an egocentric position when working with a friend.

The study is published in the January issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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