The Thought Gap

by Liero Plantir

Everyday we have many conversations with people, ranging from small talk during lunch, intimate conversations with friends or arguments with those close to us. Regardless of how significant the conversation, in some way we are able to connect with the thoughts of another in that moment. It can be a window into their mind and even if not explicit, many things can be inferred from a conversation.

However, once we leave a conversation our connected nature tends to dissipate and a disparity starts to open up between our own thoughts and those of the other person. We tend to underestimate how much the other person thinks of us following a conversation, because of the asymmetry between the access to our own thoughts and the thoughts of those we’re in conversation with. This is known as the thought gap.

We have privileged access to our own subjective experiences and we are the only people able to access our thoughts directly. All we can do is communicate these thoughts through whatever medium we desire, though they will never be as pure to another person as they are to ourselves. The expression of our thoughts is one of the fundamental ways we connect with each other, however given the incompleteness and interpretations of those expressions a disconnect will always remain. Engaging in conversation is the closest way to truly knowing the thoughts of another person.

Once you leave a conversation you no longer have access to the real-time feedback of that social interaction, therefore you’re put in a difficult position with respect to knowing what the other person is thinking. It’s a significant psychological transition from being intimately connected to someone to then being alone with your own thoughts.

I think the biggest things people would like to know following a conversation, especially a more salient one, is what did the other person think of the conversation and how often did they think about it?

In respect of the first question, what the other person thinks of you is generally well gathered from your own metaperceptions. These tend to be characteristics such as whether you think someone is trustworthy or not, easygoing or neurotic or hardworking or lazy. Though metaperceptions vary in their accuracy, for the most part we have a fairly stable view of ourselves. We tend to have significant insight into both our reputation generally as well as a more modest insight into how we’re perceived by specific individuals.

Our greatest tool for peering into the minds of others is the assumption that their minds are similar to our own, some kind of egocentric projection. Our self-perception of our own traits often allows us to infer what others might think.

Existing research tends to focus on those metaperceptions and the question concerning people’s thoughts following a conversation. However, there’s much less research regarding the frequency with which the other person tends to think about the conversation.

There’s very limited information on how often a person thinks about a conversation and it’s very difficult to infer. It isn’t clear whether people have an existing self-view when it comes to this, though recent studies have demonstrated that we tend to remain in people’s minds much more than we would think. We don’t really have heuristics to deal with this because of the sheer lack of evidence and this is where the thought gap tends to be most prominent between two individuals.

One strategy could be to assume (egocentrically) that however much you have been thinking about the other person, they have been thinking about you the same amount. This strategy however tends to be inconsistent due to the asymmetry between your own thoughts and those of the other person.

The contributions to existing literature on this tend to focus on the biases we have when predicting how often a person thinks about a conversation. One example is the spot-light effect which demonstrates the way we tend to overestimate the amount that people think about us in certain situations. For instance, wearing an embarrassing t-shirt in a room full of strangers, which has previously been interpreted as showing that people tend to think attention is on us even when it isn’t.

Despite this, recent evidence supports the opposite conclusion. When asking people eating lunch in a large cafe how much others are noticing them, they actually underestimate how much attention is on them, mistakenly thinking they are invisible. This is the key conflict of egocentrism. Whatever we’re focused on, we think others are too. This explains why wearing an embarrassing t-shirt may cause us to overestimate how much other people notice us.

The thought gap is something that will always exist, however being aware of it can be pleasantly surprising. As you can imagine it has a range of implications for our relationships, the quality of our social interactions and the way we resolve conflicts. I think it’s easy to forget the impact of our conversations because of our egocentric focus. I guess awareness of the gap helps us to view things more charitably, especially arguments or intimate conversations.

Beyond just conversations it makes me wonder about the extent to which it affects all our interactions. Is it a phenomenon that only arises after a conversation, or does it occur in other contexts, even without a social interaction to incite it?

Regardless, awareness of the thought gap hopefully makes people feel closer to those they interact with. Though a disconnect will always remain it does feels nice to bridge the gap in some way.

Further reading...