Dr. Bruno Galantucci, associate professor of psychology, and Benjamin Langstein ’15YC co-authored an article (along with Gareth Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania) titled “Content deafness: When coherent talk just doesn’t matter” in Language and Communication.

The authors begin by saying that common intuition suggests that, when people are engaged in face-to-face conversation, they diligently monitor the coherence of the messages they exchange.

However, their research shows that, contrary to this intuition, people often fail to notice cases of blatant conversational incoherence.

They had 30 participants engage in spontaneous face-to-face conversations with a confederate who, eight minutes into the conversation, uttered the nonsensical sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” They had the confederate utter the sentence with a clear voice when their c0-participants were silent. A minute later, the conversation ended, and participants were asked if they had noticed the sentence. Remarkably, only 10 participants noticed.

This newly uncovered phenomenon—which they labeled content deafness—corroborates and extends previous findings with online instant messaging. “These findings,” explained Galantuci, “demonstrated that that people engaged in online instant messaging did not detect the presence of messages which were obviously incoherent. In one study, these messages were generated by crossing two unrelated conversations. In the other, they were generated by us and inserted in the conversation through the server.”

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