Solidarity in Confusion

What we convey when we converse

Stefano Corso
Stefano Corso


If you’ve ever cringed when a friend cursed in front of uptight relatives, or winced when a coworker unknowingly bashed another’s religious views, you know the feeling. “Stop. Just stop,” you think. “I know you don’t know it, but this is not going well.”

Being privy to someone else’s discomfort or confusion—even if it remains unvoiced—can have a pretty big impact on how we experience a conversation. An elegant new study finally captures the phenomenon (or at least a related one) in the laboratory.

Psychologists at the University of York plunked students in front of a computer and presented them with pairs of sentences. The first was always presented aurally, with the students wearing headphones; the second appeared silently as text on the monitor. Crucially, some of the participants were seated next to someone without headphones—someone, that is, who could read the second sentence, but couldn’t listen to the first one.

For some sentence pairs, the second sentence was easy to comprehend on its own: one doesn’t need to hear The fishmonger prepared the fish to make sense of The fish had gills. But in other pairs, the first sentence provided some crucial context: without first hearing In the boy’s dream, he could breath under water, it was tough to interpret The boy had gills.

Yet even the students who’d heard the first sentence experienced an N400 (a pattern of neural activity associated with processing difficulty) in response to the second sentence—but only if seated beside someone without headphones. They knew their neighbors were probably confused, and registered that confusion vicariously. In fact, the N400 pattern was just as strong for students sitting next to people who hadn’t heard the contextualizing sentence as it was when these students themselves read a sentence like The boy had gills without context.

Not only are we affected by other listeners, the researchers argue, but “the cognitive process by which we understand what others comprehend mirrors our own language comprehension processes.” This jibes nicely with past research showing that we can adopt our conversation partners’ postures, gestures, word choice, and vowel sounds.

But it’s important not to overstress these results. For decades, psychologists have debated the extent to which we use language with others in mind. For every study that demonstrates our ability to take on the perspectives of those we interact with, another questions just how often this is done. In the York study, the students with headphones were instructed to indicate after each sentence pair whether the second sentence was intelligible for those without headphones—a manipulation that almost certainly loaded the dice in favor of perspective-taking.

So though it seems we can experience bewilderment on behalf of others, it remains an open question just how often we do.


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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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