Turns out nobody knows how long a conversation should last, and we keep talking way longer than we actually want to

Very few people leave conversations when they want to, according to research.

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Very few people leave conversations when they want to, according to research.
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pio3 / Shutterstock

  • People like talking to each other, but nobody wants to be locked into a conversation they have no further interest in.
  • According to new research, people have no idea how long a conversation should last.
  • Researchers from Harvard locked two people in a room at a time and asked them to talk until they wanted to be let out.
  • But only 15% of people left the conversation when they actually wanted to.
  • This could be down to many factors, including social norms, altruism, and the fact you can never know what someone else is thinking.

People like concrete answers. For instance, it takes around 200 hours to become best friends with someone, and you shouldn’t wait much longer than two months before you and your partner make things official.

But when it comes to how long the ideal conversation should last, it’s not so clear.

Psychologists Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University have been looking into the issue, and they published a preview of some of their research on a blog this month.

“Humans spend much of their days talking to other humans,” they wrote for a presentation at the Society for Judgment and Decision Making. “It’s reasonable to expect that these conversations end when one or both people want them to end. We hypothesize, however, that they don’t.”

In an experiment, Mastroianni and Gilbert recruited 133 pairs of people, and locked them in a room together to talk for one to 45 minutes about anything they wanted. The participants were told they could end the conversation whenever they wanted too.

Afterwards, they asked the participants if and when they first felt the conversation should end, and to guess how the other person felt.

The main findings were only 15% of the people in the study left the conversation when they wanted to. Half the time, partners didn’t want the same thing – one wanted to leave sooner, and the other wanted to stay longer.

Overall, almost nobody left conversations exactly when they wanted to. The researchers concluded this is probably because participants wanted different things, and “people had no idea when their partners wanted to leave.”

“Participants may have been inaccurate because they used a faulty heuristic,” they wrote. “They anchored on their own desired length and insufficiently adjusted when guessing their partner’s desired length.”

Cody Kommers, who manages the computational cognitive neuroscience lab at Harvard University, wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today that people have prior expectations about a range of things. For example, they expect movies to be about 110 minutes, and rarely longer than two hours.

“They expect poems usually to be a few lines long, but allow that some can go up into the thousands,” Kommers wrote. “They expect that the majority of cake recipes call for precisely 60 minutes in the oven. And they even expect the reigns of most Egyptian pharaohs to have lasted on the order of only a few years.”

In the experiment, the average conversation lasted around 30 minutes. Kommers wrote he would have predicted this is longer than anyone would have wanted to talk.

“We may have a pretty strong understanding of how long we want something to go on for, but it seems like we’re not as successful in extending that understanding to include other people,” he said. “Further compounding the issue, people had no idea that they had no idea about their partner’s expectations.”

Another possible reason for people sticking out the conversations is altruism. Research has shown how some people stay in unhappy relationships because they might see their partner putting a lot of effort in, and decide to give it another chance.

Essentially, if you see someone committing to the relationship, it can make you feel like it could be worth saving. The unhappy partner might want to give the relationship a second chance because the happy partner is clearly still invested.

But you don’t know what someone else is thinking. So rather than second-guessing, it might be a better idea to be upfront when talking with someone reaches a natural end. After all, there’s no guarantee the other person wants to be stuck talking to you either.