Psychologists have found a way to measure when people ‘click’

Each semester, Emma Templeton, Ph.D. candidate and researcher for Dartmouth Social Systems Laboratory, sits down for coffee dates with a rotating cast of ambitious college students. This is part of her job as a resident of Dartmouth’s East Wheelock House. The conversations she has are as diverse as the young minds that occupy the dormitory. Some students seek academic guidance; some want help organizing a social event; and some just need a listening ear. “Experience can take so many different forms,” she says. “I never know how it’s going to be when I show up.”

While Templeton aims to inspire its residents, these conversations also inspire its own research in the field of social psychology. Sometimes, she noticed, she had a moment of connection with the students where everything seemed to fall into place. “I came to this right after talking with people around the world,” Templeton says. “When I have a really good conversation with someone, I think about it for weeks afterwards. But, I noticed that it was really hard to anticipate who I would have a good conversation with. It was always this pleasant surprise.

But what makes people “click” with each other in this way? Templeton and a group of Dartmouth researchers attempted to answer this question by a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January. Beyond that, the scientists sought to identify an empirical measure of how connected two people feel during a conversation.

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To investigate the hidden roots of satisfying conversation, researchers recorded 322 conversations between strangers. At first they didn’t know what they were looking for. But, as they experimented with various data visualizations, one factor stood out: When people bonded with the person sitting across from them, the silence between rounds of conversation narrowed. “Conversations that had faster response times were correlated with higher ratings of connection and enjoyment,” says Templeton.

It was an “aha” moment for the field of social psychology – researchers had identified a quantifiable measure of social connection. Thalia Wheatley, professor of human relations and senior research fellow at the Dartmouth Social Sciences Lab, says the finding follows a shift in methods of inquiry in the social sciences. While previous research relied on individual subjects, neuroscientists and psychologists are beginning to embrace research that places a subject in a social environment. “The brain evolved in a social context,” says Wheatley. “Our tools let us down for a long time.”

The recent study takes this new approach. This shows that the architecture of a conversation is just as interesting as the people on either side of the table.

It is important to note that most response times during a typical conversation are extremely fast. The average difference between when one person stops talking and when the next one starts is less than a quarter of a second. The authors point out that this is about three times faster than the average time it takes someone to name a common object. “That kind of responsiveness can’t be earned,” Wheatley says. “Our intuition is that there’s only one way to close those gaps. And that’s really listening to your partner. You have to understand where they’re coming from and where the conversation is going.

If the researcher’s intuition is correct, response time is a very useful heuristic. It’s a way to measure how engaged someone is in a conversation, not just whether they feel connected or not. “We should be tuned into this for our mental and physical health,” Templeton says. “We want to find people who understand us. It’s a beautiful thing that we have this signal.

Once response time was established as a useful variable, the researchers expanded the scope of their study. In one experiment, they found that response time also indicated feelings of connection in conversations between close friends. In another, they found that outside observers tended to rate a conversation’s social connection higher when researchers manipulated an audio recording to shorten response time. “Everything else in the conversation remained constant. Response time is the only thing we changed,” says Templeton. Overall, the studies establish response time as a robust indicator of connection and a topic ripe for further investigation.

While this discovery obviously has obvious implications for the field of psychology, Wheatley also predicts that it could have applications in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). Already, designers and engineers are hard at work creating AIs that can help people solve problems, shop online, and most importantly, make them feel a little less alone. The Dartmouth study indicates that reducing the response time of an AI could make people feel more connected to these synthetic personalities.

“People crave social connection,” Templeton says, “Ideally they can get it from another human. But there’s probably space to connect with bots as well.

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