A series of 8 studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General find evidence for a “thought gap”, suggesting people underestimate how much their conversation partners think about them following social exchanges.
Approximately 50% of our waking hours are spent engaged in communication; most commonly, conversation. This leaves the remainder of the day “to remember, replay, and relive what was said.” As such, conversations not only affect us while they occur, but long after they have ended. People are well aware of how they have been impacted by a conversation – whether it’s laughing at a joke after the fact, reflecting on a friend’s advice, or thinking about a loved one following an argument. However, a unique psychological challenge is understanding how much we have impacted a conversation partner, and whether our beliefs about it are accurate.
People have privileged access to their personal experiences, such that they will always know their own thoughts more than they can know the thoughts of others’. Engaging in conversation may be the closest we can come to knowing the thoughts of another individual; thoughts can be shared directly through language or inferred through non-verbal information (e.g., pitch, prosody). When conversations end, there is a notable psychological transition, going from the intimate connection with another’s thoughts to being alone with one’s own thoughts.
Gus Cooney and colleagues write, “One consequence is that a gulf widens between the certainty that people feel about their own thoughts (e.g., ‘I really enjoyed that conversation, and I’m thinking a lot about what she said.’), and the certainty that people feel about their conversation partner’s thoughts (e.g., ‘I wonder if she liked me—or if she’s even thinking about me at all?’).”
In this work, the researchers sought to answer whether following conversations, people can accurately estimate the frequency of a conversation partner’s thoughts about them. The thought gap was primarily operationalized as a) participants’ reports of how much they have been thinking about their conversation partner since a conversation, and b) estimates of how much their conversation partner has been thinking about them. Some studies also included measures of how much participants were affected by conversation, how much they replayed a conversation in their mind, or the number of thoughts they had relating to the conversation – this was done to provide convergent evidence of the proposed thought gap.
A total of 2273 participants were involved in this research. Study 1 was conducted in dining halls across campus, with participants responding to survey questions asking how much they had thought about their conversation partner and how much they believed their conversation partner had thought about them since they last spoke. Study 2 was conducted in a laboratory setting, with two strangers paired to have a 45-minute conversation with each other using a deck of 17 flashcards that contained questions to facilitate self-disclosure.
Two hours after this portion, participants completed a follow-up survey regarding the frequency of their thoughts about their conversation partner, as well as their beliefs about the frequency of their conversation partner’s thoughts of them. Study 3 followed an identical procedure to Study 2, but involved two friends as opposed to strangers.
Given arguments are tense, emotional, and infrequent, they are also more salient. Accordingly, Study 4 tested whether salient conversations increased the magnitude of the thought gap. Study 5 explored whether the availability of others’ thoughts influences the size of the thought gap.
As time passes, our own thoughts accumulate, while access to a partner’s thoughts remain limited. Thus, Study 6 examined whether the magnitude of the thought gap increases over time. Study 7 tested whether people who tend to experience more thoughts running through their mind (i.e., high ruminators) also experience a greater thought gap compared to those with fewer thoughts. The 8th and final study examined the relationship between thought frequency and thought valence (i.e., positive or negative thoughts).
Cooney and colleagues found that participants mistakenly believed that they thought about their conversation partner more so than their conversation partner thought about them. This effect was found in a field study (Study 1), controlled laboratory studies (Studies 2-3), as well as online studies (Studies 4-8). They found evidence of the thought gap across different relationships, including friends, significant others, and even strangers meeting for the first time. This effect held in various social contexts, including introductory conversations, arguments, and deep or meaningful discussions, with the pattern of results persisting for both positive (e.g., conversations between friends) and negative interactions (e.g., arguments).
The researchers also found that salient conversations produced a larger thought gap and that increasing the availability of others’ thoughts reduces the thought gap. Further, that the thought gap increases over time as one’s own thoughts have time to accumulate, and lastly, that the thought gap is moderated by rumination. These findings suggest that people’s asymmetric access to their own thoughts compared to others’ thoughts is a key psychological process in explaining the thought gap.
A limitation to this work is that not all studies were dyadic. In Studies 1 and 4-7, participants recalled prior conversations or arguments, providing data only from one member of a dyadic interaction. Thus, it is possible that when people are prompted to reflect on prior interactions, they selectively report those they have thought about to an unusual degree. This could potentially exaggerate the thought gap and call into question whether it is a bias or a reflection of reality. However, the two laboratory studies revealed a consistent pattern of results, suggesting this is likely not the case.
The research, “The Thought Gap After Conversation: Underestimating the Frequency of Others’ Thoughts About Us”, was authored by Gus Cooney, Erica J. Boothby, and Mariana Lee.