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Study: A Complete Stranger Understands You About as Well as Your Spouse Does

If you say "it's snowing hard out there," are you annoyed if no one gets up to shovel the walkway? Vexed, are you, by your intimates' inability to see what you meant? Do you think a long love's result should be near-wordless mind-reading? If so, here is some advice derived from the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: Grow up, dummy, and try saying what you actually mean. In this paper, researchers tracked how people in couples read between the lines when listening to their partners, and compared that to how well they understood total strangers. Results: No difference.

Kenneth Savitsky and his co-authors had married couples do an exercise involving phrases with multiple interpretations. "What have you been up to?", for example, came with a gloss that said it could mean one of four things: "why are you late?" or "I'd like to know how you are" or "have you been seeing someone on the side?" or "you're throwing me a surprise party, aren't you?" Each experiment had a "speaker," who received a list of 20 such phrases, each with four possible meanings, one of which was highlighted. The task was to read the words out loud so that only the chosen meaning was conveyed to the other three players—the "speaker's" spouse and another couple. These listeners had the same sheet of phrases, on which they marked the meaning they had understood for each phrase.

Before the experiment, people playing the speaker guessed that their spouses would understand them better than would the unknown couple next to them. After the procedure, they also said they were sure their partners understood them better. Since everyone went through the experiment twice, listeners also had a chance to compare spouses to strangers. And they too said they were sure they'd understood their loved one better than the other speaker.

They were all wrong. Listeners were no more accurate for their spouses than they were for strangers. And, the paper notes drily, there was no correlation between anyone's confidence and actual accuracy.

Savitsky et al. believe that this is evidence that close ties make people stint on the effort required to understand each other. To communicate with a stranger, they argue, we have to imagine the mind of the other person, and understand how things look in another's eyes. But with people close to us, we "let down our guard": We hope, or expect, or assume (or maybe feel entitled to believe, after all we've done over the years) that the other sees things exactly as we do.

The authors don't claim that marriage or friendship make no difference. When two people are in an unambiguous situation (for example, two long-acquainted cooks in a restaurant) then they can read between the lines quite well. But in contexts where words have many possible meanings, we get in trouble if we overconfidently assume we grok.

If we weren't so damn anxious about intimacy, we could see the positive spin in this result: It suggests that total strangers can communicate their thoughts and emotions as well as long-cohabiting and loving couples (the 24 couples in the experiment had been married, on average, more than 14 years). It's a testimony to our profound similarity, and the power of language, that any one of us can, with a little effort, make herself understood to any other of us on planet Earth. We just have to accept that that kind of mind-reading is a human universal, so love has nothing to do with it.

Savitsky, K., Keysar, B., Epley, N., Carter, T., & Swanson, A. (2011). The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends versus strangers Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 269-273 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.09.005

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