Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Friday, September 16, 2022

Talking with strangers is surprisingly informative

Atir, S., Wald, K. A., & Epley, N. (2022).
PNAS, 119(34). 


A meaningful amount of people’s knowledge comes from their conversations with others. The amount people expect to learn predicts their interest in having a conversation (pretests 1 and 2), suggesting that the presumed information value of conversations guides decisions of whom to talk with. The results of seven experiments, however, suggest that people may systematically underestimate the informational benefit of conversation, creating a barrier to talking with—and hence learning from—others in daily life. Participants who were asked to talk with another person expected to learn significantly less from the conversation than they actually reported learning afterward, regardless of whether they had conversation prompts and whether they had the goal to learn (experiments 1 and 2). Undervaluing conversation does not stem from having systematically poor opinions of how much others know (experiment 3) but is instead related to the inherent uncertainty involved in conversation itself. Consequently, people underestimate learning to a lesser extent when uncertainty is reduced, as in a nonsocial context (surfing the web, experiment 4); when talking to an acquainted conversation partner (experiment 5); and after knowing the content of the conversation (experiment 6). Underestimating learning in conversation is distinct from underestimating other positive qualities in conversation, such as enjoyment (experiment 7). Misunderstanding how much can be learned in conversation could keep people from learning from others in daily life.


Conversation can be a useful source of learning about practically any topic. Information exchanged through conversation is central to culture and society, as talking with others communicates norms, creates shared understanding, conveys morality, shares knowledge, provides different perspectives, and more. Yet we find that people systematically undervalue what they might learn in conversation, anticipating that they will learn less than they actually do. This miscalibration stems from the inherent uncertainty of conversations, where it can be difficult to even conceive of what one might learn before one learns it. Holding miscalibrated expectations about the information value of conversation may discourage people from engaging in them more often, creating a potentially misplaced barrier to learning more from others.

Direct applications to psychotherapy.