You Probably Don’t Notice Incoherence in Texting

Excuse us for dusting off an old chestnut, but texting is stupid, and you may not even notice if some kind of technical glitch happened and you got shunted into a completely different conversation. How do we figure that? Well, researchers tried it.

A study published in PLOS One has found that a surprising number of people aren’t able to detect a sudden shift in text message conversations. Twenty pairs of students were set up at computers where they had an IM window and images of five famous cartoon characters. The IM window showed the most recent messages sent and received, but not entire chat histories. The images of cartoon characters were nearly identical for each pair, with some small differences. The pairs had to figure out what the differences were over a fifteen minute IM conversation.

However, halfway through conversations, researchers would swap conversation partners—pairs were working at the same time as other pairs, and researchers would mix up pairs without letting them know.

After the task was done, participants had to tell researchers how smoothly conversations went. Then, researchers told the participants that some participants had their partners swapped (which, in reality, this happened to everyone). When asked if they suspected that they were swapped, only 58% of the participants said yes.

According to researchers, “The finding that over 40 per cent of participants failed to notice that the conversation they were holding was repeatedly crossed with a different conversation seems to suggest that we are surprisingly insensitive to conversational incoherence.”

Here’s our idea: just pick up the phone. Texting is great for things like “I’ll be there in five minutes”. Save conversations for actual conversing.

Photo courtesy of Jim Pennucci

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