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April 26, 2002 Press Contact: William Harms
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Speakers Overestimate Their Effectiveness, Researchers Find

If you think the people you talk to every day often don’t express themselves well, University of Chicago researchers say you may be right.

University of Chicago psychologists Boaz Keysar and Anne S. Henly have found that most people seriously overestimate their ability to communicate effectively, even when dealing with information they know to be ambiguous. "When it comes to communication, people overestimate their skill," Keysar said.

Studying 40 pairs of listeners and speakers, Keysar and Henly found that speakers believed that their intended meaning was being understood most of the time. But the findings showed that, in fact, nearly half the time they thought they were understood, they were actually wrong.

"This really demonstrates how great the potential for day-to-day miscommunication is," Keysar said of the study, which will appear in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science. Keysar believes the findings suggest a rule of thumb about communication. "Anticipate miscommunication," said Keysar. "If you want to make sure you’re understood, assume that what you say is much less transparent that what you think it is." 

The findings are based on an experiment in which 40 speakers said 12 syntactically ambiguous sentences such as "Angela shot the man with the gun" to listeners. The same 40 speakers also said four lexically ambiguous sentences, such as "The typist tried to read the letter without her glasses."

With the syntactic ambiguity, the sentence was ambiguous because the listeners had to decide whether the speaker meant that Angela had the gun, or the man had the gun. With the lexical ambiguity, the listeners had to, for instance, decide whether the speaker was using the word "letter" to refer to a letter in the alphabet, or a letter that is mailed.

Study results showed that when speakers thought the listener understood their intended meaning, they were wrong in nearly half of the cases (46 percent). In contrast, speakers underestimated their effectiveness — thinking they were not understood when they were understood — in only 12 percent of the cases.

What is perhaps most surprising about these findings, Keysar said, is that the speakers were told in advance that the sentences are ambiguous. "Even then, even though they were warned," Keysar said, "they still thought they managed to convey their intention with intonation."

Keysar believes this overestimation of effectiveness by speakers represents an "illusion of control," a phenomenon that’s been demonstrated in other activities. For instance, Keysar said, when people buy a lottery ticket, and select the numbers, they have a false sense that they have a better chance of winning than when the numbers are selected randomly. This also happens with speakers, Keysar said, because they are the actors, and "they have the illusion that they fully control the outcome."

Overestimation of effectiveness was more common with syntactically ambiguous sentences than with the lexically ambiguous sentences.

"This suggests that speakers appreciated the impossibility of using intonation to resolve the meaning of an ambiguous word," Henly said,"and thus were less likely to overestimate their ability to convey the word’s intended meaning."

Listeners also were not very accurate in understanding the sentences, misunderstanding 39 percent of the time. They were more accurate with syntactic than lexical ambiguity. But what Keysar found interesting was their confidence in comprehension. "Even with a very little bit of information," Keysar said, "listeners still were confident that they understood." In fact, they were just as confident when they understood as when they misunderstood the speakers intended meaning."

In a second experiment, the researchers tested the ability of an observer to gauge the comprehension of listeners. These observers knew what the speaker intended, and listened to the speaker’s message, but were not involved in the social exchange. They listened to recordings of the listener/speaker pairs, and indicated which meaning they thought the listeners understood.

In contrast to the speakers, observers did not systematically over-estimate the speakers’ effectiveness. Keysar believes the results demonstrate a general point about communication. "When we observe people talk, we don't think that what other speakers say is transparent, even when we know what they intend to convey. Because of the mental effort that speaking imposes on us, it is harder for us to avoid this error when we speak. Consequently, we tend to take what we say as transparent for everyone to understand."
Last modified at 10:55 AM CST on Friday, April 26, 2002.

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