Why even close associates sometimes have trouble communicating

Particularly among close associates, sharing even a little new information can slow down communication

Some of people’s biggest problems with communication come in sharing new information with people they know well, newly published research at the University of Chicago shows.

Because they already share quite a bit of common knowledge, people often use short, ambiguous messages in talking with co-workers and spouses, and accordingly unintentionally create misunderstandings, said Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

“People are so used to talking with those with whom they already share a great deal of information, that when they have something really new to share, they often present it in away that assumes the person already knows it,” said Keysar, who with graduate student Shali Wu tested Keysar’s communication theories and presented the results in an article, “The Effect of Information Overlap on Communication Effectiveness,” published in the current issue of Cognitive Science.

“Sharing additional information reduces communication effectiveness precisely when there is an opportunity to inform—when people communicate information only they themselves know,” the researchers said.

In order to test the theory, the two created a communications game in which parties had unequal amounts of information. They prepared line drawings of unusual shapes and gave them made-up names and then trained University of Chicago students to recognize different numbers of the shapes.

During the game students were tested to see how well they could communicate to a partner the identity of one of the shapes. Students, who with their partners shared a great deal of knowledge about the shapes, used names more often in identifying the shapes while students who didn’t have a great knowledge of the shapes described the shapes rather than naming them.

The students were more likely to confuse the partners they shared more information with because they would automatically use the name of a shape rather than the description, assuming that their partner would know what they were talking about, when in reality he or she didn’t recognize the name.

The use of unknown names slowed communication, just as the use of unknown information slows communication in real life. The researchers found that people who shared more information were twice as likely to ask for clarification as those who shared less information.

In real life situations, the assumptions people make about what another person knows has many consequences, Keysar said. Doctors, for instance, often communicate quickly with each other and may miscommunication because they don’t realize the other physician is getting new information when they are discussing a treatment program, he suggested.

On a professional level, brief e-mails between colleagues can cause miscommunication, Keysar has learned from personal experience. “I once was scheduled to speak and had gotten the day of my talk mixed up. I received an e-mail from the host asking me if I was ok. I wrote back and said I was and didn’t find out until later that what he really wanted to know was where I was, as they were waiting for me to talk,” Keysar said.

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