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When We Get Close to People, We Overestimate How Effectively We Communicate With Them

·692 words·4 mins
Communication Psyched for the Weekend

“We finish each other’s–”


Arrested Development (and later, Frozen)


It’s kind of the best feeling… when you get close enough to a person that you feel like you know what they’re going to say next. When you can actually accurately finish their sentences.

At least sometimes.

Because as it turns out, as we become increasingly more close to another person, we can indeed become overconfident that we’re communicating effectively with them.

I’ve definitely been privy to delightful “oh my gosh, we’re finishing each other’s sentences” bonding moments with other people. But I’ve also faced a different kind of scenario: Talking to a close friend or lover and having them interject and assume I’m going to go somewhere with what I’m saying that I definitely wasn’t going to.

It can be aggravating when someone jumps to conclusions about something you’re going to say. Particularly if they’re offended/unsettled by the thing they wrongly assumed you were going to say.

It turns out that there’s a factor behind this. A phenomenon that’s called closeness-communication bias.

What Is Closeness-Communication Bias? Why Does It Happen?

Closeness-communication bias is a tendency for people to overestimate the effectiveness of their communication when discussing things with people they have formed close bonds with. While closeness can confer benefits into communication, it doesn’t guarantee that any given message will be delivered or received as intended.

A  study of the phenomenon found the following:

  • People expected their spouses to understand them better than strangers. However, there was no difference in the overall accuracy rate between spouses and strangers.
  • The pattern held when comparing conversations between friends and strangers.
  • Instead of actively monitoring external signs like they would with a stranger and engaging in perspective taking, with close conversational partners people tended to “let down their guard,” which entailed them relying more solely on their internal perspective to guide communication rather than properly attending to both what they’re saying to the other person and what is being said to them.
  • Study authors suggest that when we get close to people, we are more likely to get the illusion of understanding them rather than understanding them.

Quite an interesting study and idea. If I really think about it, I definitely get what they mean.

It’s a Convincing Illusion, for Sure

Part of me wants to argue against it and say, “Hey, but I really DO have special insight into my friends. I definitely understand them better than strangers.” (And vice versa.)

But on the other hand, I can absolutely think of (many) times where someone close to me has jumped to the completely wrong conclusion about where I was going next in conversation. Or told me something ambiguous and assumed I understood — and I certainly didn’t.

The illusion of understanding can be so strong that I’ve even had people argue with me when I insist that wasn’t what I meant or where I was going. Or that I didn’t follow what they meant. This has particularly happened in close romantic relationships, where I’ll be told I’m post hoc-ing. That I’m attempting to take something back I haven’t said because I know it won’t be popular.

Taking back something I haven’t said. And something I wasn’t planning to say, mind you. (And many times don’t even think.)

But to my conversational partner, they’ll be convinced. Some of the gnarliest and most frustrating relationship fights I’ve ever had have started this way.

Anyway, it’s something I’m going to think about moving forward. Do I really know what the other person means or what they’re about to say, or am I just assuming I do because we’re close?

Knowing someone should theoretically pose an advantage — so long as we don’t overestimate that advantage.

Perhaps there’s a way here to communicate better with those closed to us than we would with strangers if we can only counteract the effects of overconfidence.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


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