Conversations that trap you

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We all know examples of boring conversations in which we were trapped and we were incapable of ending in a short period of time. But what we ignore is that often both the parties want to end the conversation sooner than it actually does.

Willing or not, we lose the ability to satisfy our interests and to align to those of the people we are speaking with. Losing precious time or not using it in the best way.

In other words, we are not efficient nor strategic.

The Harvard research

To show our inability to end useless conversations, or to manage to make them efficient at least for the other, and not for us, there are two experiments conducted by a research team of the Psychology Department of the University of Harvard.

In the first experiment, 252 people in the Psychology Department were hired and paired in couples, to entertain a conversation that could have lasted as long as they wanted to, up to 45 minutes.

In the second experiments, 806 random volunteers were asked to answer some questions about their most recent conversations. Then, they were asked to say if the moment in which they wanted to stop the conversation and the actual end were the same.

The results

In both cases:

  • More than 66% said that the conversation lasted more than they wanted to,
  • 10% claimed that the conversation was too short and they wished to keep talking,
  • 2% considered themselves satisfied of the duration.

The overall results of the experiments showed that the desired duration of conversations is about half of the effective duration. In addition, a general inability to understand the other’s desires emerged. Some participants had in fact overestimated the intention of their counterpart: the hypotheses were wrong in 64% of the cases.

Dale Barr, psychologist from the University of Glasgow, believes the Harvard research the first study that tried to measure accurately how difficult it is for people to balance their own desires with the desires of others. Additional research supports the fact that people are less able to decipher what the counterpart is thinking than what they imagine. What if the situation worsened with the addition of biases?

What if the situation worsened with the addition of biases?

We all know examples of boring conversations in which we were trapped and we were incapable of ending in a short period of time.

When biases don’t help

We are not good in satisfying neither our interest nor others’. Not only we are not strategic, but inefficient too. At least in some kinds of conversation. So much so that we prefer remaining trapped, to avoid offending the other, than looking for a way out.

One of reasons is to be attributed to the courtesy bias, the prejudice that leads to being kind with others that ask for our opinion, or that seem to listen to us. This prevents us the free expression of any honest feedback, that could be perceived as negative by the counterpart. While the courtesy bias could save people from uncomfortable short-term situation, it can also hinder constructive feedbacks that can improve things.

The status quo bias is part of this too, the tendency to leave things as they are: even if we are bored, we believe that it is less of an effort than intervening, changing the strategy.

To blur our perception there is the possibility that the false consensus effect is present too, the bias that leads to see one’s own choices and judgments as common and suited to the existing circumstances. Assuming that others think the same way we do, we overestimate how much others could share our thoughts, actions and behaviors. So much so that we don’t even think that what we are saying maybe is not that interesting to the person in front of us.

This is just a short digression, to which many other prejudices have to be added, depending on the context and the counterpart considered in any given interaction. It would be wrong to ignore its effect and its entity. As long as we are bypassing the status quo, it is more challenging to find all other biases.

In retrospect, to conclude, the reason for which, in most cases, we prefer talking with a drink in front of us or while having lunch is clear: at some point, the empty glass or the check to pay offers an excuse to end the agony of that conversation.

Laura Mondino


[1] Mastroianni A.M., Gilbert D.T., Cooney G., Wilson T.D., Do conversations end when people want them to?, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PNAS, March 9, 2021- 118(10) e2011809118

[2] O’Grady C., When should you end a conversation? Probably sooner than you think, Science, Mar. 1, 2021

[3] Heyes C., Submentalizing: I Am Not Really Reading Your Mind, SageJournals,March 4, 2014, Vol. 9 (2), pp. 131-143

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