COVENTRY, England — Take note the next time you’re introducing yourself to a new co-worker and then absentmindedly discussing the weekend with them. These may seem like innocuous interactions, but fascinating research from the University of Warwick reports first impressions formed during “small talk” interactions subsequently influence strategic behavior later on.
“Our work highlights the importance of regular ‘small talk’ communication, even when it doesn’t seem relevant or important. Through short seemingly trivial interactions with others we become better able to predict the personalities of those we talk with which in turn boosts our performance when we interact with them in the future,” study authors write.
Participants who chatted with someone else for a few minutes appeared to form beliefs about their conversation partners’ personalities. Those beliefs then served as the basis for their behavior while playing strategic games with that same conversation partner.
Plenty of prior research has investigated how people’s personalities dictate and impact strategic behavior in economics. But, far less has been established in regards to how people’s impressions of others’ personalities may or may not influence strategic interactions. Some previous studies have explored the formation of personality impressions via a few different avenues: face-to-face interactions, observing others’ physical appearance, or observing their behavior.
How small talk influences decisions during strategic games
To research this nuanced topic further, study authors focused on impressions formed through “small talk” for their project. A group of168 participants were instructed to have a four minute instant-messaging-based conversation with another study subject. Then, those participants recorded their impressions of their conversation partners’ personality, with a particular emphasis on both extraversion and neuroticism. Afterwards, subjects were asked to take part in two strategic games with their conversation partner.
Importantly, an additional 170 participants served as a control group and did not engage in small talk before playing the games.
Sure enough, people who had chatted with another participant ended up forming impressions about their partners’ personalities – with a particular emphasis on their level of extraversion. Those impressions appeared to influence subjects’ strategic decisions and behaviors during the games.
This influence tended to vary depending on the game being played. For example, one game featured both competitive and cooperative elements. During that game subjects usually cooperated more if they believed their partner was extraverted. Meanwhile, during a more competitive game that involved predicting the opponent’s behavior, subjects found it more difficult to “out-guess” their foe if they believed they shared similar personality traits with each other.
In summation, study authors note that this research was exploratory in nature and thus can not form any definitive conclusions. That being said, this work is a significant first step towards future studies that can focus on the connections between personality impressions and strategic decision making across a variety of real-world contexts.
The paper is published in the journal PLoS ONE.