The findings from a series of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition suggest that people often underestimate how much others are interested in having deep and meaningful conversations. The study found that people consistently expected deep conversations with strangers to be more awkward and less fulfilling than they actually were.
“People are highly social, and so connecting with others tends to be a major source of happiness in people’s lives,” said study author Michael Kardas, a postdoctoral fellow in Management and Marketing at Northwestern University. “Yet people are often reluctant to connect deeply with strangers, at least partly because people assume that strangers will be uninterested in having meaningful conversations with them. We wanted to understand whether people’s concerns about connecting deeply with strangers are warranted.”
The researchers conducted twelve experiments with more than 1,800 participants in total to examine the degree to which others are interested in connecting through conversation.
In the first initial experiments, participants discussed intimate questions with a stranger, such as “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” The participants reported how they expected to feel after these conversations and then reported their actual experiences. Participants underestimated both their own interest in listening to the other person and how interested they perceive their partner would be in listening to them. Participants also reported feeling less awkward, and happier and more connected to their partner than they anticipated.
“Deep conversations between strangers tend to go better than people expect,” Kardas told PsyPost. “Before speaking, people expected strangers to be relatively uninterested in the content of the conversation. Yet after speaking, people indicated that the person they spoke with was more interested and caring than they expected. As a result, people felt more connected and happier after speaking with a stranger than they had anticipated, and deep conversations between strangers felt less awkward than expected as well.”
The researchers also compared shallow versus deep discussion questions, and compared conversations between strangers versus known family members or friends.
Both deep and shallow conversations with strangers felt less awkward and led to greater feelings of connectedness and enjoyment than the participants had expected. But the difference in participants’ expectations and their actual experience was significantly larger for deep conversations.
The researchers also found that participants expected family members or friends to be more caring and interested than strangers, and they more accurately predicted how awkward, enjoyable, and happy they would feel in a deep conversation with family members or friends compared with strangers. The finding suggests that “people refrain from having deep and intimate conversations when they are concerned that another person will be uncaring and indifferent toward the conversation.”
In a more direct test of their hypotheses, the researchers had participants engage in a shallow conversation with one stranger and a deep conversation with another stranger. Most participants expected to prefer the shallow conversation, but ended up preferring the deep conversation after having both of them.
“People seemed to imagine that revealing something meaningful or important about themselves in conversation would be met with blank stares and silence, only to find this wasn’t true in the actual conversation,” said co-author Nicholas Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago, in a news release. “Human beings are deeply social and tend to reciprocate in conversation. If you share something meaningful and important, you are likely to get something meaningful and important exchanged in return, leading to a considerably better conversation.”
The researchers also found evidence that miscalibrated expectations could create a psychological barrier to deeper conversations. Participants who expected they would be speaking to a caring stranger tended to choose to discuss deeper questions than participants who expected to speak to a stranger who was described as indifferent. Simply informing participants that their beliefs about others’ interest in having deep conversations tended to be systematically miscalibrated also resulted in them choose to discuss deeper questions.
“Our participants’ expectations about deeper conversations were not woefully misguided, but they were reliably miscalibrated in a way that could keep people from engaging a little more deeply with others in their daily lives,” Epley said. “As the pandemic wanes and we all get back to talking with each other again, being aware that others also like meaningful conversation might lead you to spend less time in small talk and have more pleasant interactions as a result.”
“One of the most important steps in connecting deeply with a stranger is reaching out and saying ‘hello’ to begin with,” Kardas added. “Once you start talking, you can raise deeper conversation topics that reveal something important about who you are as a person. And the more you have deep conversations, the more you’re likely to recognize that others are interested in having deep conversations with you as well.”
The study, “Overly Shallow?: Miscalibrated Expectations Create a Barrier to Deeper Conversation“, was authored by Michael Kardas, Amit Kumar, and Nicholas Epley.