How much should we talk in conversations?
Contrary to participants’ beliefs, they were more likeable the more they spoke. Further, conversation partners formed global (as opposed to differentiated) impressions. This research was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Despite the uniquely social nature of humans, we do not necessarily navigate first encounters well, leading to uncomfortable situations, such as awkward party conversations and bad first dates. Quinn Hirschi and colleagues examined one possible reason explaining this phenomenon, specifically, people’s beliefs about “how much of the time they should speak versus listen” in conversation if their goal is to be liked or to be interesting.
Two concepts are particularly relevant in this work. First, the reticence bias, “whereby people believe they will be liked in a conversation if they speak less than half of the time, when in fact they will be liked more if they speak half or more of the time.” And second, halo ignorance, which “reflects the fact that people do not realize that other people form global impressions (the halo effect), and that the same talking-time strategy can increase both liking and interest.”
Studies 1 and 2 were conducted to replicate an initial pilot that found participants would speak significantly less than half the time if their goal was to be liked and enjoy themselves, while also expanding the scope of research to include people’s beliefs about how much they ought to talk to seem interesting.
Study 1 recruited 95 undergraduate students who were prompted to imagine they were partaking in a study with another student named Taylor who they had not met before. Participants were told they would spend 5 minutes taking turns answering four conversation prompts (e.g., What’s your favorite class so far?; How do you like your living situation?).
Afterwards, they were instructed to imagine that after a break, the conversation rules would change, such that they would get to decide what percentage of the time they or Taylor would speak (from 0 – 100%) commenting on Taylor’s responses or expanding upon their own. Participants responded to each of these questions for three different goals, including getting Taylor to like them, to appear interesting to Taylor, and to enjoy themselves.
Study 2 included 110 participants who were likewise told to imagine they were partaking in a study with another student in which they would take turns to answer the same above prompts. They were given 3 minutes to brainstorm their responses. Participants were then instructed to imagine themselves speaking for 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 percent of the time, with their conversation partner speaking for the remainder. For example, participants could see “what has been your favorite class so far? (you have 30 seconds to respond)”, with a subsequent prompt stating “[conversation partner’s name], what has been your favorite class so far? (you have 70 seconds to respond)”.
They were then asked how much they would prefer to speak for the same three goals described above. For each goal, they indicated their preference to speak 30-70% of the time. As well, “For each percentage, participants forecasted the extent to which they would like their partner, find their participant interesting, and enjoy themselves. They then forecasted their partner’s liking, interest, and enjoyment.” Forecasts were provided on a 5-point sale.
Study 3 involved 118 students, and each study session included two participants. It followed the same procedure as in Study 2, however participants no longer had to imagine conversations, but instead had conversations with each other. For example, a prompt might be “ALEX, what has been your favorite class so far? (you have 70 seconds to respond)”. Participants completed the same measures described in Study 2.
Hirschi and colleagues observed a reticence bias, whereby participants believed they would be better liked if they spoke less than half the time in conversations (Studies 1 and 2). However, participants were better liked when they were assigned to speak more (Study 3). There was also evidence of halo ignorance, such that participants mistakenly believed they should speak less to increase their chances of being liked and speak more to enhance interest, when in fact, conversation partners formed global impressions. In other words, liking does not come at the expense of being interesting, or vice versa, given these goals are not mutually exclusive.
One limitation is the artificial talking times allocated to participants. In natural conversations, people have the ability to choose how much to speak; one conversation partner taking up the majority of talking time or perhaps speaking about an uninteresting subject for slightly more than half the time, may be perceived negatively.
The research, “Speak Up! Mistaken Beliefs About How Much to Talk in Conversations”, was authored by Quinn Hirschi, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert.