from Emily Reynolds
Sometimes the most meaningful conversations come at surprising times: with someone you meet on the train and never see again, with a friend of a friend you just met. Conversely, conversations with our closest friends and family can often be difficult, and sometimes we fail to share our deepest thoughts and feelings with those we love most.
A new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, notes that we seriously benefit from these deep conversations with strangers. Even so, we sometimes hesitate to get involved, overestimate their awkwardness, and underestimate their advantages, even as we enjoy them more.
In the first study, participants read that they were accidentally paired with another person with whom they discussed several questions. Topics were things in life they were grateful for and times when they cried in front of another person. They then estimated how much they would care about the other person, how interested the other would be, how uncomfortable they would feel during the conversation, and how much they would feel connected to them. After having the interview, they rated their actual experience with the interview using the same metrics.
The results showed that participants underestimated their interest in the other person – and how interested that person was in them. They also underestimated how connected they would feel with their partner, and Aboveappreciated how awkward the conversation would be.
A second study replicated the first – only this time half of the pairs of participants had shallow conversations about television, lifestyle, and haircuts, while half answered the meaningful questions. Again, participants overestimated how uncomfortable the conversation would be and underestimated how connected they would feel. Those who answered deep questions overestimated the awkwardness significantly more than those who had superficial conversations – and ended up feeling more connected than shallow pairings. A follow-up study, in which participants asked their own deep questions for discussion, replicated these results.
In a fourth study, participants reported how much they thought they would care for their partner, and vice versa, before talking to them about flat or deep topics. Participants expected that they would care more about their own answers than their partner, especially in the deep condition, when it did not: in both conditions, interlocutors cared more about answers to both shallow and deep questions than expected .
In a later study, participants had both shallow and deep conversations and, as in previous studies, shared their expectations and responses. And while they expected to prefer the shallow conversation over the deep conversation, participants actually preferred the deep conversation, which in turn significantly underestimated how much they would enjoy it. Participants were also able to better anticipate how conversations with loved ones would fare compared to strangers, suggesting that we are “mis-calibrating” how much people we don’t know are interested in our lives.
Over the course of seven studies, the results showed that people enjoy deep conversations when they don’t expect it. In-depth discussions made the participants feel more connected to their interlocutors and were significantly less uncomfortable than expected.
This could prevent us from having conversations with all possible benefits – because we expect deep conversations with strangers to be painful, and because we expect strangers not to care, we may avoid them altogether. In fact, however, this study suggests that we care deeply about one another. Remembering this fact, especially after a year and a half during which many of us have been physically alienated from one another, could ultimately lead to better, or at least unexpected, conversations.
– Too shallow ?: Incorrectly coordinated expectations make deeper conversations difficult.
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles