A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that individuals are more likely to blame themselves when casual conversations become difficult. The findings reveal that the self-serving bias you find in many other human activities seems to disappear when engaging in casual conversation. This insight may be helpful to those who experience anxiety during small talk.
Informal conversations involve complex interactions between individuals that require coordination of turn-taking, eye contact, the anticipation of upcoming content, and interpretation of previous statements. The number of participants, cultural background, and goals can vary, and finding a balance between small talk and more personal topics can be difficult.
Despite the benefits of deeper conversations for mental well-being, people often overestimate the awkwardness of such interactions. Conversations can be challenging due to their inherent complexity, uncertainty, and broad scope.
Surprisingly, there is a lack of research in this area, given how crucial social connections are to our health and how conversations play a vital role in creating and sustaining these relationships. Researchers are working to address this gap in the literature by exploring whether individuals have a negative outlook on their conversational abilities compared to other everyday activities.
Christopher Welker and colleagues, utilizing three different studies with a total of 768 participants, investigated whether individuals tend to underestimate their conversational skills in informal settings and the reasons behind it. First, participants were surveyed about their perceived conversational proficiency compared to their peers and evaluated their performance in other activities (Studies 1a-1c). Then the research team explored whether people’s negative assessments of their conversational abilities stem from a pattern of attributions for positive and negative moments in conversations that differs from the usual self-serving bias (Studies 2-3).
Analyzing their results, the research team determined that individuals experience anxiety during casual conversations due to their unusual way of explaining their successes and failures. Participants tended to attribute their conversational lows to themselves and make self-deprecating comments, while they attributed successes to external factors.
The authors suggest that this difference in behavior may be because the success or failure of a conversation depends on the other person’s opinion, unlike other activities with objective criteria for success. The primary goal of conversations is to ensure that everyone involved enjoys the interaction.
The research may have been limited by the self-report method for data collection. Additionally, thinking back on conversations may not represent the feelings one had at the moment.
The research revealed that individuals tend to undervalue their abilities when having conversations. This could be due to a unique tendency to take more responsibility for the negative outcomes of a conversation than their partners. In addition, the subjective nature of conversations, where the opinions of others play a significant role in success or failure, may contribute to the anxiety people feel during informal conversations.
The study, “Pessimistic assessments of ability in informal conversation“, was authored by Christopher Welker, Jesse Walker, Erica Boothby, and Thomas Gilovich.