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Personality and Text

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Unless you really know someone, or something about them, it’s hard to get personality out of email and text. Nick Epley, a professor of economics has done a fair amount of research on email and other virtual communication.

His latest paper, examines how virtual communication allows us to dehumanize a person. His paper builds on the Milgram experiments done at Yale shortly after World War Two.

Being socially connected has considerable bene?ts for oneself, but may have negative consequences for evaluations of others. In particular, being socially connected to close others satis?es the need for social connection, and creates disconnection from more distant others. We therefore predicted that feeling socially connected would increase the tendency to dehumanize more socially distant others. Four experiments support this prediction. Those led to feel socially connected were less likely to attribute humanlike mental states to members of various social groups (Experiments 1 and 2), particularly distant others compared to close others (Experiment 3), and were also more likely to recommend harsh treatment for dehumanized others (i.e., terrorist detainees, Experiment 4). Discussion addresses the mechanisms by which social connection enables dehumanization, and the varied behavioral implications that result.

I once heard Epley speak on mind reading. They did some experiments with email. It turns out, no one is a mind reader-unless you are previously very connected to that person in a physical way. For example, long time friends can generally understand humor and conjecture in email because they know each other so well. But it’s not the same with acquaintances.

Yesterday David Cohen posted a blog that caused me to focus on the academics behind his blogpost. Cohen is correct, and has learned from practical experience.

Even simple texts on a phone, or tweets, or Facebook interactions can be misinterpreted.

A lot of people hide behind this facet of social interaction. In a blog post, or on blogger comment pages they will hack away, and then say the other commenters didn’t understand their “tone”. I think that it pays to be very clear in the words that you type. Be economical without a lot of flourish or emotionally charged words-unless your mission is to initiate a type of reaction, which could jujitsu on you. Sometimes it pays to write a lot more like Ernest Hemingway than it does Alexander Hamilton.

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