People tend to underestimate how much they would enjoy having a conversation with a stranger, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes.
The study found that people incorrectly believed that their conversations would become more and more dull and awkward over time. Instead, conversations lasting up to half an hour resulted in either stable or increasing levels of enjoyment.
“Good conversation can be one of daily life’s most enjoyable activities, yet people may be hesitant to set aside time for conversation if they think they might quickly run out of things to talk about,” said study author Michael Kardas, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
“We wanted to understand whether people’s concerns about running out of things to talk about in conversation are justified, or whether conversations might remain rich with material to discuss, and might remain enjoyable, for longer than people expect.”
The researchers conducted five laboratory experiments, which included 1,093 participants in total.
All five experiments followed a similar paradigm. Pairs of strangers met together and engaged in a brief face-to-face conversation. Each participant then privately reported their level of enjoyment with the conversation and were asked to predict their enjoyment for several more sessions of conversation. The participants then continued talking and reported their actual enjoyment at the end of each session.
“In this research, we brought together pairs of strangers and had them speak for several minutes. These strangers typically enjoyed these initial minutes of the conversation, yet they also anticipated that their conversations would grow somewhat dull as they continued, because they expected to quickly run out of things to talk about with the other person,” Kardas told PsyPost.
“Yet when these same people were then instructed to actually continue their conversations, they reported having more topics to discuss than they anticipated, and enjoyed themselves more than they expected as well. That is, people underestimated how much they would enjoy themselves as their conversations continued.”
The researchers found that participants who were asked to write down a few topics to discuss with their study partner prior to their conversation tended to have more accurate expectations.
“We find that people have more accurate expectations about how much they will enjoy their conversations if they first think in detail about the topics that they are likely to discuss,” Kardas said. “People might focus on how little they currently know about another person, but drawing their attention to how much they could know through conversation seems to remind them that conversation with a new acquaintance is likely to remain enjoyable for some time.”
“We’d like to follow up on this research by testing whether prompting people to think about specific topics that they are likely to discuss might also lead them to prefer longer conversations, and if so, whether people might feel happier after having these longer conversations as well.”
In the final experiment, the participants were asked to predict their level of enjoyment if they spent the next 25 minutes continuing to talk or spent the time keeping to themselves. Participants also privately indicated how long they preferred to continue talking. They were then randomly assigned to either keep talking for another 25 minutes or talk for a shorter duration (based on their responses).
The researchers found that participants who were required to continue talking for 25 minutes reported significantly greater enjoyment compared to those who were able to cut their conversation short.
“We think these findings matter because people’s beliefs about how much they will enjoy their conversations are likely to guide their decisions about how much time to devote to conversation, or whether to continue an enjoyable conversation once it begins,” Kardas added. “So if you’re looking to connect with someone new or deepen an existing relationship, our research suggests you shouldn’t hesitate to set aside more time for conversation, as these conversations tend to remain rich with material to discuss and enjoyable for longer than people typically expect.”
The study, “Keep Talking: (Mis)Understanding the Hedonic Trajectory of Conversation“, was authored by Michael Kardas, Juliana Schroeder, and Ed O’Brien