Mastroianni, A., Gibert, D. T., Cooney, G*., & Wilson T. D. (2021) Do conversations end when people want them to? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 118, e2011809118
Behavioral science has not yet provided an answer to this basic question: “Do conversations end when people want them to?” To answer this question, we analyzed a large sample of conversations, finding that conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to. Moreover, conversations rarely ended when even one conversant wanted them to. Finally, the average discrepancy between conversants’ desired and actual durations was roughly half the length of the conversation itself. We explore how ending conversations is a classic “coordination problem” that is difficult to solve because the norms of conversation prevent people from being transparent about their true desires.
This produces some ironic (if not unfamiliar) consequences, such as two people continuing to talk even though they both want to leave, or two people ending the conversation despite both wanting to stay. Perhaps the norms that govern conversational endings work to spare people’s feelings or allow conversants to save face, but as a result, conversations often end when no one wants them too. This recent project is also part of a larger set of ideas that I am developing on conversational norms that have yet to be fully characterized by the literature. Some norms of conversation are well-known such as norms of politeness or Grice’s Maxims, but I think there are other norms that are intriguing candidates for new exploration, which I think represent a new and exciting area of research.