Study says people don't understand the emotional tone of emails, but think they do

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

People only ascertain the intended tone on an e-mail message about 56% of the time, not much better than chance, according to a study led by Prof. Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago) and Prof. Justin Kruger (New York University). The research also found that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone 90% of the time.

Epley and Kruger discovered that not only were the receivers of the e-mails overconfident about their understanding of the message's tone, but the senders were as well. About 78% of the senders thought that the receiver would correctly interpret the tone of their e-mail message.

Epley explained that "People in our study were convinced they've accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance."

He observed that "people often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they 'hear' the tone they intend in their head as they write." Kruger likened this to findings from previous research by Elizabeth Newton that people vastly overestimated their ability to convey a tune by tapping out its rhythm. "It's impossible not to hear the song as you're tapping away," he said. "So you have a hard time separating yourself from your own perspective and realizing how impoverished the listeners' data really are."

Epley stated that similar misunderstandings of emotional tone play a major role in starting online flame wars.

The study has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.