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Interpersonal Perception and Communication

Linda Albright
Westfield, MA

My current research in the area of interpersonal perception focuses on interpersonal communication. In conversation, people use combinations of words (statements or utterances) to accomplish a particular communicative intent (e.g., to show concern, to praise, or to criticize). However, the relationship between statements and intentions is probabilistic; there is no one-to-one correspondence between statements and the intentions they reflect.

To what extent do people accurately determine the communicative intent of other people's conversational statements? In a recent study conducted with A. Cohen, T. Malloy, and T. Christ, we videotaped groups of four well acquainted participants engaged in five-minute conversations with each of the three other members of the group.

From these videotaped conversations, we randomly selected six statements, three of which were made by one participant, and three of which were made by the other participant. Subsequently, participants watched the videotapes of their own conversations and judged the selected statements on eight "verbal response modes" (Stiles, 1978), or response intentions. In other words, they were asked to judge the intent (speech act) of the conversational statement.

We estimated the extent to which participants agreed about the intent of their statements. That is, to what extent do people agree that a given statement was intended to advise versus to provide information? We found high levels of agreement in judgments of communicative intent.

Is this agreement a function of participants' "inside perspective," or is the reality of these communicative intentions apparent to "outsiders"? To address this question, two or three observers, who were unacquainted with the participants, were assigned to observe these videotapes under one of three experimental conditions: audio-visual, audio-only, and text. They also judged the selected statement on the eight response intention categories.

We found substantial levels of consensus among observers in all experimental conditions, although consensus was somewhat higher in the audio condition. Thus, in this study, there was no evidence that perspective influenced the ability to judge communicative intent in conversation.

In other research, we are exploring the links between personality, quality of conversation and social interaction, and judgments of personality and social behavior. Can we predict which conversation will be pleasant, for example, on the basis of the participants' personalities? Does personality affect conversational behavior in systematic ways? Does exposure to others' conversational behavior provide an adequate basis for more general social judgment of the individual? We are in the process of analyzing the data to address these and other questions.

Contact Linda Albright

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