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Stop Making Sense? Many of Us Wouldn’t Even Notice

Researchers find many people fail to pick up on the fact an instant-messaging chat they are engaged in has turned incoherent.
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So, you’re having an instant-messaging chat with a friend and, due to some technological glitch, it gets cross-wired with a totally different conversation. You’d notice, right?

Surprising new research suggests the answer is “not necessarily.”

“Although people can and do notice incoherence in conversation, they often fail to do so, even when such incoherence is blatant,” report psychologists Bruno Galantucci of Yeshiva University in New York City and Gareth Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania.

In the online journal PLoS One, they describe two studies in which a substantial percentage of participants apparently glazed over during a 15-minute electronic exchange, failing to realize that their remote conversation was no longer coherently tracking.

"We should consider the possibility that failures of communication are rather more common than we want to assume."

What’s more, elephants don’t actually like peanuts.

Still with me? OK. Their first study featured 20 pairs of students. Each member of a pair sat in front of a computer displaying a cartoon of five famous people, and an instant-messaging window which featured the most recent messages each participant sent and received.

The students were informed that the cartoons they were viewing were identical except for the color of certain elements. They were given 15 minutes to discover the difference by comparing notes via instant messaging.

Unknown to them, a second pair of students was performing the same task simultaneously. “Over the course of each conversation, there were four 30-second crossings during which each member of Pair A was re-partnered with a random member of Pair B,” the researchers write.

After 15 minutes, each participant was asked how smoothly they felt the conversation went, and whether they felt they were having any trouble communicating with their partner. They were then told that certain participants were subject to cross communications (in fact, all of them had), and indicated whether they believed that had happened to them.

The result: 58 percent of participants reported (or guessed) their conversation had been interspersed with another. “The finding that over 40 percent of participants failed to notice that the conversation they were holding was repeatedly crossed with a different conversation seems to suggest that we are surprisingly insensitive to conversational incoherence,” the researchers write.

For the second study, the researchers used the same method and same set of cartoons, but broadened the focus of the conversation, asking people to “discuss which of the five famous people they would most and least like to spend a day with.”

These students were more likely to pick up on the logical lapses than their predecessors. Still, 27 percent of them failed to notice the fact that their conversation was repeatedly crossed with another.

These results provide support for “models of communication that view it as noisy and error-prone,” Galantucci and Roberts conclude. “We should consider the possibility that failures of communication are rather more common than we want to assume.”

Or, to put it in Hollywood terms, what we’ve got here is another life lesson from Cool Hand Luke.