Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J., & Ng, Z. (2005). Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think?. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 89(6), 925-936. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.525
summarized by Evan Cutler, Assistant Director, Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring
Kruger, Epley, Parker, & Ng (2005) conducted five studies to explore how people communicate with a focus on the usage of email. Only findings with implications that may be relevant to youth mentoring will be summarized. Please reference the full version of the study, available as PDF, for the complete article if needed.
The authors of the current study explain that egocentricism is when a person draws from their own perspective in order to make a judgment about another person’s perspective. Yet non-verbal cues (e.g. facial expressions, inflection, tone) are important in understanding the meaning of a speaker’s message. Many forms of digital communication, but email in particular, lack these non-verbal cues (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986; Thompson & Nadler, 2002). Thus, the authors of the current study hypothesize that not only are people miscommunicating over email, but that due to egocentricism many people are not even aware of it.
Five studies were conducted in total. Different groups of university students were recruited as participants for each study. In the first study, twelve participants were paired up in six groups of two. Each participant was asked to write two sentences, one serious and one sarcastic, that related to 10 different topics (e.g. parties, art, food, literature). Each pair partner rated how likely it was that the tone of their sentences (i.e. serious or sarcastic) would be perceived correctly before their list was sent to their pair partner via email. Lastly, each participant rated the tone of their sentences within the email they received. Thus, the authors of the study were able to calculate the percentage of sentences participants’ felt would be interpreted correctly as well as the percentage of sentences that were actually interpreted correctly.
Subsequent studies increase in sample size (e.g. study 3 recruits 154 pairs of students) and complexity. However, the theme of measuring perceptions and accuracy with regards to interpreting tone remains constant across studies. Study 2 divides pairs of participants up into an email-only group and a tape-recorder (i.e. voice-only) group. Study 3 measured results from face-to-face communication, face-to-face communication while standing back-to-back (i.e. blinded), and email-only. Potential differences between tones of sadness and anger, in addition to sarcasm and seriousness, were also explored. Study 4 specifically tested if egocentrism influences outcomes. Within study 4, all participants read their 10 statements out loud and ranked each of them with regards to how serious or sarcastic each sounded before sending their email. Half of participants read sarcastic statements out loud in a sarcastic tone (i.e. same phenomenology condition) and half were asked to read sarcastic statements in a serious tone (i.e. opposite phenomenology condition). The same was done for serious statements. Study 5 explored perception and accuracy of interpreting humor over email
In study 2, students in the email group and voice group (i.e. communication via tape recording) anticipated that another person would correctly identify their tone with an accuracy rate of 78% and 77.9%, respectively. However, only 56% of email statements were interpreted correctly compared to an accuracy rate of 73.1% in the voice group.
For study 3, no significant differences were found between the perceived accuracy and actual accuracy of the face-to-face communication group (89.5% and 73.9%) and the face-to-face but blinded group (88.9% and 73.3%). As expected, the email group’s perceived accuracy was 88%, but actual accuracy dipped to 62.8%. Whether pairs were made up of participants who were friends or strangers had no effect on outcomes. No significant differences were found between face-to-face pairs and voice-only (i.e. blinded) pairs. Lastly, no differences were found between participant’s ability to correctly interpret the tones of sarcasm, seriousness, sadness, and anger.
Within study 4, participants in the same phenomenology condition (i.e. reading sarcastic statements out loud in a sarcastic tone of voice) rated their sarcastic statements as being almost twice as sarcastic sounding than did participants in the opposite phenomenology condition. Serious statements were also rated as less serious by participants in the opposite-phenomenology condition. Unlike the opposite phenomenology condition, participants in the same phenomenology condition had no significant differences in their perception of accuracy and actual accuracy with regards to interpreting tone in email.
Findings suggest that university students, presumably between the ages of 18 to 22, consistently overestimate their ability to effectively communicate emotion via tape recording, face-to-face conversation, and over email. This overconfidence is especially apparent when using email. As study 2 demonstrated, participants predicted an average accuracy rate of 78%, but were only able to correctly interpret the emotional tone of a sentence 56% of the time.
Mentoring programs that structure, encourage, and/or allow mentors to provide emotional support to mentees through digital media should consider how their training, policy, and match support help safeguard against miscommunication that may arise due to egocentrism and an absence of non-verbal cues.
Within the current study, communication through tape-recorded messages and face-to-face interactions were interpreted with more accuracy when compared to email. In other words, these findings imply that Skype/video or phone conversations might be preferable to a text-only medium such as email, texting, or instant messaging, when it comes to providing emotional support. Findings from the current study might not apply to instrumental support or communication where interpretation of emotional tone is less important. Similar to how the authors primed participants in studies 4 and 5, it might be possible to train mentors and mentees to be mindful of egocentrism in order to reduce the potential for miscommunication.
Interestingly, overconfidence and accuracy of interpreting tone were not significantly different between participants that communicated using tape recorded messages and participants that talked face-to-face. This does not imply that face-to-face meetings between mentors and mentees can or should be replaced by phone communication. A more cautious and appropriate interpretation of these findings might be that when given a choice to prioritize either video or audio quality in an e-mentoring program, possibly due to budget constraints, audio should be given higher priority.
Findings from these five studies should be interpreted with caution since they were not performed within the context of a mentoring program(s) and did not use youth-adult dyads as participants. That being said, Schwartz, S.E.O. (2014) surveyed 222 mentors and over 60% reported using at least one form of digital media to communicate with their mentee. Out of that percentage, mentors overwhelmingly used digital media, including email, for logistical purposes and reserved in-depth conversations for face-to-face meetings. Interestingly, this seems to be in alignment with the implications of the current research article. In order to fully explain these survey results future youth mentoring research will need to be conducted and may benefit from incorporating findings from the fields of communications studies and technology.