Mar 19, 2006

E-mails and egos

An inability to step outside of one's own head may be behind e-mail miscommunication, according to recent research.

Kruger, a professor at New York University, was once a member of a psychology departmental e-mail list at a different university. A job candidate came into town to interview for a faculty position. The faculty member responsible for organizing a meet-and-greet dinner sent around an e-mail invitation that read "talking to the candidate is not required; just don't embarrass us."

"She meant it as a joke, but much to her surprise some people were really upset," says Kruger. "It was a comical miscommunication."

Now, Kruger and his colleague Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago, have published research that helps explain why these electronic misunderstandings occur so frequently.

In a study in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they find that people overestimate both their ability to convey their intended tone–be it sarcastic, serious or funny–when they send an e-mail, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages others send to them.

The reason for this communication disconnect, the researchers find, is egocentrism–the well-established social psychological phenomenon whereby people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how other people will interpret them.

And as e-mail has become more prevalent, Epley says, the opportunities for misunderstanding have increased.

"Of course there's nothing new about text-based communication; people have been writing letters for centuries," he explains. "But what's different in this medium is…the ease with which we can fire things back and forth. It makes text-based communication seem more informal and more like face-to-face communication than it really is."