Awkward Silences: Technical Delays Can Diminish Feelings of Unity and Belonging


Smooth social interaction is fundamental to a sense of togetherness. We’ve all experienced disrupted conversations—some caused by human awkwardness and others by breakdowns in technology. The content of our interactions does influence our connection to each other, but the form and process of communication also play a role.  Technical delays that occur below our conscious detection can still make us feel like we don’t quite click with the person we are trying to communicate with. The authors of a recently published PLOS ONE article, funded by a Google Research Award, investigated how delays introduced into technologically mediated conversations affected participants’ sense of solidarity with each other, defined as unity, belongingness, and shared reality.

For this research, conducted at University of Groningen, The Netherlands, participants in three sets of experiments sat in cubicles with headsets connected to computers (conditions that many of us with desk jobs can relate to) and were asked to talk about holidays for five minutes with an assigned partner. Some conversations were uninterrupted. Others were manipulated by introducing a one-second auditory delay. Some pairs knew about the delay and others did not. Afterward, the conversationalists completed a questionnaire about their sense of unity, belonging, understanding, and agreement with their partners.


Researchers found that those participants whose conversations were interrupted expressed significantly diminished feelings of unity and belonging. Awareness of technical problems had no apparent effect on perceived solidarity.  Even acquaintances stated that they felt a disconnect, though to a lesser degree, than participants who did not know each other. Despite participants expressing that they felt less unity and belongingness with their partner even when they had the opportunity to attribute it to technical problems, technology did not get a free pass on the delayed signal. Those with an interrupted connection also expressed less satisfaction with the technology. Points may have been lost for both relationships and telecommunications.

In a world where our interactions are increasingly mediated by computers and mobile phones with less than perfect signals, the authors suggest that this research provides insight into how our daily interactions may be affected. The method of communication we choose may influence our personal and business relationships, especially among strangers. The authors also posit that technology meant to improve long distance communication by imitating face-to-face interaction may not measure up to expectations if it is not executed without interruptions or delays. Perhaps this is something to consider during your next awkward phone call or video conference— though your awareness of technology as a possible barrier ultimately may not make a difference in how you perceive the person on the other end of the line.

Citation: Koudenburg N, Postmes T, Gordijn EH (2013) Conversational Flow Promotes Solidarity. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078363

Images: First image by Villemard is in the public domain. Second image is Supplemetary Figure 1 from the article.

Perceiving Is Believing


Do we really sing as well as we all think we do in the shower? Exactly how complex is Mel Taylor’s drumming in Wipeout? How we hear things is important not just for the field of music research, but also for the fields of psychology, neurology, and physics. There is a lot more to how we perceive sound than sound waves just hitting our ears. PLOS ONE recently published two research articles exploring music perception. One article focuses on how perceiving a sound as higher or lower in pitch—the frequency of a musical note relative to other notes—than another sound is influenced by different instruments and the listener’s musical training. The other explores rhythm, including musicians’ perception of rhythmic complexity.

Pitch is the frequency of a sound, commonly described using the words high or low. The quality of tone, or timbre, of an instrument, on the other hand, is less easy to define. Tone quality is often described using words like warm, bright, sharp, and rich, and can cover several frequencies. In the study presented in “The Effect of Instrumental Timbre on Interval Discrimination,” psychology researchers designed an experiment to determine if it is more difficult to perceive differences in musical pitch when played by different instruments. They also tested whether musicians are better at discriminating pitch than non-musicians (you can test yourself with this similar version) to see if musical training changes how people perceive pitch and tone.

The researchers compared the tones of different instruments, using flute, piano, and voice, along with pure tones, or independent frequencies not coming from any instrument. As you can see from the figure above, each instrument has a different frequency range, the pure tone being the most localized or uniformly “colored.” Study participants were given two choices, each choice with two pitches, and decided which set of pitches they thought were the most different from each other; sometimes they compared different instruments or tone qualities and sometimes, the same.

The researchers compared the participants’ answers and found that changes in tone quality influenced which set of pitches participants thought were the most different from each other. Evaluation of the different timbres showed that musicians were the most accurate at defining the pitch interval with pure tones, despite their training in generally instrumental tones. Non-musicians seemed to be the most accurate with both pure and piano tones, though the researchers noted this might be less reliable because non-musicians had a tendency to choose instrumental tones in general. Interestingly, both groups were faster at the pitch discrimination task when pure tones were used and musicians were better at the task than non-musicians. Everyone chose pitch intervals more accurately as the differences between the pitches became larger and more obvious.

Another group of researchers tested how we perceive syncopation, defined as rhythmic complexity, in their research presented in “Syncopation and the Score” by performing an experiment playing different rhythms to musicians.  They asked musicians to rank the degree of complexity of each rhythm.

The study was limited, with only ten participants, but in general, the rhythm patterns thought to be the most complex on paper were also perceived as the most complex when the participants listened to them. However, playing the same patterns in a different order sometimes caused listeners to think they were hearing something more or less syncopated. The authors suggest that a rhythm pattern’s perceived complexity depends upon the rhythm patterns played before and after it.

Both research studies highlight the intersection of music and music perception. We don’t need to be musicians to know that music can play tricks on our ears. It may be that some of us are less susceptible than others to these tricks, but even trained musicians can be fooled. Look here for more research on music perception.



Zarate JM, Ritson CR, Poeppel D (2013) The Effect of Instrumental Timbre on Interval Discrimination. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75410. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075410

Song C, Simpson AJR, Harte CA, Pearce MT, Sandler MB (2013) Syncopation and the Score. PLoS ONE 8(9): e74692. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074692

Image: Spectrograms of four tones – Figure 1A from Zarate JM, Ritson CR, Poeppel D (2013) The Effect of Instrumental Timbre on Interval Discrimination. PLoS ONE 8(9): e75410. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075410

Stein, Tankard, Pint, Boot: Different beer glasses affect drinking speed

As we enter the Labor Day holiday weekend here in the US, many Americans will probably be celebrating with a beer (or two). Before the barbeques start, though, it may be worth considering a recent paper showing that the shape of your beer glass can influence how quickly (and potentially how much) you drink.

The paper, authored by a team from University of Bristol led by psychologist Dr. Angela Attwood, reports that study participants who drank from a straight glass finished their beer 60% more slowly than those drinking from a curved glass. The cause is unknown, but the researchers write that it may be perceptual.

With curved glasses, the subjects estimated the halfway point to be lower than it actually was. The perception of the halfway point of the straight glass was also incorrect, but the discrepancy was less. In other words, the drinkers had to drink more out of the curved glass than the straight glass to get to the perceived halfway mark. If they were pacing themselves, their benchmark for doing so was worse for the curved glass than the straight glass, resulting in overall faster drinking for those using the curved glasses.

This interpretation assumes that the participants were in fact monitoring their drinking, either consciously or subconsciously, based on how much they thought they had left. Such pacing was not shown in the current study, but there are a few additional suggestive pieces of the puzzle: when the participants were given half-filled glasses, or when beer was replaced with soda, they drank from both types of glasses at the same rate, providing support for the perceptual hypothesis.

The researchers did not, however, address the effects of drinking out of a can, bottle, or one of those fancy Belgian chalices, so you may have to do some of your own experiments too.

Citation: Attwood AS, Scott-Samuel NE, Stothart G, Munafò MR (2012) Glass Shape Influences Consumption Rate for Alcoholic Beverages. PLoS ONE 7(8): e43007. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043007

Image source: darren-johnson on Flickr