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‘Banu Akrod (aged 23) delivered the best Plenary of the Convention’. That’s a straightforward remark, isn’t it? But wait – do I really mean it, or am I being sarcastic? Of course when I write something I know what my intention is, but what about the recipients of the message?

In a fascinating study, Professor Nicholas Epley et al asked some volunteers to write two sentences about some ordinary topics, such as food, cars, dating etc. One of them had to be sincere and the other one sarcastic. The subjects were then asked to convey these messages to another one of the participants. In some cases they were to do this over the phone and in another by e-mail. Would the recipients ‘get’ the right message? Does it make a difference which medium is used?

Crucially, the senders were asked to predict whether they thought their message would be properly understood. The recipients were also asked to predict in how many of the cases they would correctly gauge the sender’s intention.

The results can be seen in the graph below. Regardless of the medium, the senders were optimistic: they thought recipients would understand their intended meaning in about 80% of the cases. Recipients were even more optimistic – they thought they would ‘get it’ in 9 cases out of 10. Of course, they were both wrong…

The first thing which can immediately be seen from the graph is an ‘optimism bias’ – expectations exceeded the actual results in all cases. But whereas the senders were quite close in figuring out how many would understand what they really meant when this was conveyed over the phone (73.1%) they were very wrong when it came to online communication. The recipients got it right a little more than 56% of the time – that’s little better than chance! The difference between 56% and 78% is huge (and that between 56% and 89% is huger still! 🙂 )

The Moral: Prosodic features convey a wealth of information which is lost when you put something in writing. The likelihood of misunderstandings in online communication is very, very high. [Epley, N. “Mindwise” – Allen Lane 2014, p. 108].

Epley - Online Communication[Look at any thread on FB where there is a divergence of opinion. Very often what starts as a polite disagreement quickly escalates into a proper punch-up (the well-known phenomenon of ‘flaming’). Epley’s findings can go a long way towards explaining why this happens, as does the fact that our brain has a built-in ‘negativity bias’. Not only do we focus excessively on negative incidents and slights, we tend to ‘overperceive’ them and remember them more.]

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