Psychologists Have Found a Way to Measure When People ‘Click’

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Each semester, Emma Templeton, a Ph.D. candidate and investigator for Dartmouth Social Systems Lab, sits down for coffee dates with a rotating cast of ambitious college kids. It’s part of her job as a resident fellow for Dartmouth’s East Wheelock House. The conversations that she has are as diverse as the young minds that occupy the dormitory. Some students are looking for academic guidance; some want help organizing a social event; and some just need a listening ear. “The experience can take so many different shapes," she says. "I’m never sure how it’s going to go when I show up." 

While Templeton aims to inspire her residents, these conversations also inspire her own research in the field of social psychology. Sometimes, she noticed, she would have a moment of connection with students where everything seemed to lock into place. “I came at this from just the experience of talking with people in the world,” Templeton says. “When I have a really good conversation with someone, I think about it for weeks afterward. 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 exactly makes people "click" with each other in this way? Templeton and a group of Dartmouth researchers attempted to answer that question in 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 a satisfying chat, the 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 turns in the conversation shrunk. “Conversations that had faster response times correlated with higher ratings of connection and enjoyment,” Templeton says. 

This was an ‘aha’ moment for the field of social psychology — the researchers had identified a quantifiable measure of social connection. Thalia Wheatley, a professor of human relations and principal investigator of the Dartmouth Social Sciences Lab, says that the discovery comes on the heels of a shift in investigative methods in the social sciences. While previous research has relied on individual subjects, neuroscientists and psychologists are beginning to embrace research that places a subject into a social environment. “The brain evolved in a social context,” Wheatley says. “Our tools let us down for a long time.”

The recent study embraces this new approach. It shows that the architecture of a conversation is just as interesting as the individuals on either side of the table.

Importantly, most response times during a typical conversation are extremely fast. The average gap between when one person stops talking and the next person begins is less than one quarter of a second. The authors point out that this is roughly three times faster than the average time it takes someone to name a common object. “That kind of responsiveness can’t be gained,” Wheatley says. “Our intuition is that there is only one way to shrink those gaps. And that is to really listen to your partner. You have to understand where they are 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 attuned to that for our mental and physical health,” Templeton says. “We want to find people that get 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 the social connection of a conversation as higher when the researchers manipulated an audio recording to shorten response time. “Everything else in the conversation was held constant. Response time was the only thing we changed,” Templeton says. All together, the studies establish response time as a robust indicator of connection and a ripe topic for further inquiry.

Though this finding 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, online shop and, most of all, feel a little less lonely. The Dartmouth study indicates that lowering an AI’s response time might make people feel more connected to these synthetic personalities.

“People are craving social connection,” Templeton says, “Ideally, they can get it from another human. But, there’s probably a space for connecting with robots too.”

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