Study: Familiarity Can Muddle Communication

Study: Familiarity Can Muddle Communication

Familiarity breeds more than contempt. It can also lead to communication snafus.

Close-knit ties, thought to help communication as speakers share a common context, actually ups the chances for crossed wires compared with talk between strangers in some cases, a new study suggests.

Because close colleagues and friends already share so much common knowledge, they often use short, ambiguous messages. The vague and sometimes jargon-loaded talk can create misunderstandings.

"People are so used to talking with those with whom they already share a great deal of information, that when they have something really new to share, they often present it in a way that assumes the person already knows it," said study team member Boaz Keysar, a psychologist at the University of Chicago.

Communication games

Keysar and his graduate student Shali Wu trained 40 pairs of undergraduate students to memorize made-up names and descriptions for odd shapes. In each pair, a “director” had to communicate the identity of one of 24 shapes. The “addressee” had to use the information to choose the correct shape from a set of three images on a computer monitor.

Half of the addressees studied only the first six figures, while the others learned the first 18 shapes. The directors, who memorized all shapes, were aware of their partners’ knowledge levels. 

In pairs with the most shared knowledge, directors were more likely to rattle off shape names compared with pairs having little knowledge overlap, in which directors described the actual shapes.

The use of esoteric labels led to confusion and slowed communication since partners didn’t always recognize the names. Participants with more shared knowledge were twice as likely to ask for clarification as those with less overlap of information.

Language limitations

Language in and of itself can be confusing. “The reason all this is happening at all is that language in general is inherently ambiguous,” Keysar told LiveScience.

He recalls an ambiguous billboard near a stadium holding a Rolling Stones concert that night. The billboard read, “Avoid LSD tonight.”

Hmmm? “They’re talking about Lake Shore Drive, and I’m sure that the writer of this sign didn’t realize this is completely ambiguous,” Keysar said.

Even though miscommunication has professional consequences like missed meetings or deadlines, people are unaware of their fuzzy language, Keysar said. “We don’t realize we say things that are ambiguous," he said, "and that’s a problem.”

The study is detailed in the current issue of the journal Cognitive Science.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.