Within a typical day, most of us engage in many conversations with various people. Sometimes we “click” with others, and sometimes we don’t. Researchers Emma M. Templeton and her team wondered whether there was a way to discern when people click based on their conversations. Specifically, the researchers looked at response times.
Conversing with others involves coordinated turn-taking — one person contributes while the other listens and then the roles are reversed. This exchange is orchestrated fairly seamlessly, although it requires quite a bit of mental work. To respond to a conversation, a person needs to predict where their conversation partner’s thoughts are headed, anticipate when they are about to stop speaking, and gather an appropriate response. How quickly someone does this may be a reflection of how well they can predict and understand their conversation partner’s mind, and therefore, a signal of connection between two people.
“I love the feeling of having a really good conversation with someone. I wanted to know: what makes some conversations go well and others go poorly?” said Templeton, a graduate student at Dartmouth College. “Because so many things happen in conversation at once, we decided to start by just simply recording a bunch of conversations between pairs of people. Then, we can quantify different conversation behaviors in those recordings and relate them to how connected people in those conversations reported feeling towards each other.”
Templeton and her colleagues recruited 66 university students and had them engage in 10-minute conversations with each other. Each student engaged in 10 different one-on-one discussions where they were free to talk about whatever they wanted, and most of the students did not know each other. Following each conversation, the participants rated their enjoyment of the conversation. They then watched a video recording of the conversation and rated the level of connection they felt with their conversation partner at different instances.
For each conversation, the researchers calculated the response times in between each speech turn. In line with the researchers’ predictions, conversations with faster response times on average were rated as more enjoyable and evoked stronger feelings of social connection. When looking at moment-by-moment ratings within conversation, faster response times predicted increased feelings of connection. Further, participants with faster overall response times had partners who enjoyed the conversation more and felt more connected to them.
A follow-up study among a subset of the sample further suggested that these effects extend to conversations among friends. When subjects engaged in conversations with three of their close friends, again, faster response times predicted greater enjoyment of the conversation and stronger feelings of connection.
In both studies, it seemed that it was a partner’s quick response rather than a participant’s quick response that contributed to increased social connection. Specifically, the researchers found that a partner’s response time significantly explained the variance in feelings of social connection, while a participant’s own response time did not. According to the study authors, this may indicate that a partner’s prompt response time was received as a signal that they were actively listening and interested.
“We showed that when people respond quickly to each other in conversation, this is a signal that they are connecting with each other,” Templeton said.
Finally, a third study revealed that even outsiders interpret fast response time as a signal of social connection. Third-party listeners were assigned to listen to portions of the recorded conversations from Study 1. Importantly, some of these excerpts had been manipulated to include faster response times (one-fifth the length of the original) or slower response times (twice the length of the original).
Participants rated conversations as more enjoyable and the partners as more connected when the response times had been sped up compared to the original. By contrast, they rated conversations as less enjoyable and partners as less connected when the response times had been slowed. Notably, the observers were never told to pay attention to response times, suggesting that they had implicitly learned that response time was a signal of social connection.
Overall, the findings suggest that even split-second differences in response times can impact inferences of social connection between conversation partners. The authors say that future studies should explore additional contexts, such as negotiations or arguments, to see if quick response times might be interpreted differently in these situations.
“We looked at this in the context of strangers getting to know each other and friends catching up. There are many other types of conversations out there! It will be interesting to see whether response time signals different things in different types of conversations,” Templeton said. “We are continuing to explore this dataset to investigate what other sorts of conversation behaviors reliably relate to connection.”
“Because these response times are happening so quickly, we don’t think they are something that can be faked,” the researcher added. “That is, you probably can’t suddenly decide to try to respond faster in an attempt to make someone feel connected to you. The only way to respond quickly is to understand where the other person is coming from and to anticipate where they are going.”
The study, “Fast response times signal social connection in conversation”, was authored by Emma M. Templeton, Luke J. Chang, Elizabeth A. Reynolds, Marie D. Cone LeBeaumont, and Thalia Wheatley.