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Faculty Insights

Talking to Strangers May Make You Smarter Than You Realize

New research from the Wisconsin School of Business shows that people consistently underestimate the learning potential gained from conversations with strangers.

By Leiah Fundell | Photography by Paul L. Newby II

August 17, 2022

Stav Atir, assistant professor of management at the Wisconsin School of Business

Between working from home, having goods and groceries delivered, and exclusively banking online, it’s increasingly possible to conduct life without ever engaging face-to-face with another human being. The average person can now avoid casual conversation with strangers more often than not. But is that a good thing?

It turns out that NOT talking to strangers could be keeping us from living a more informed life. When we don’t talk to strangers, we’re missing out on a variety of education we couldn’t anticipate, leading to poorer decision-making, less creativity, and overall diminished well-being. What you don’t know will hurt you after all. 

A new study from two leading business schools suggests that we underestimate the potential for learning from strangers, colleagues, and others that we micro-interact with daily. The study by Stav Atir, assistant professor of management at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Kristina Wald and Nicholas Epley of the Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, found that systematically underestimating the informational benefit of conversation creates a barrier to talking with—and hence learning from—others more often in daily life.

“Failing to accurately anticipate how much someone could teach you is consequential. It really matters,” says Atir. “Ironically, not knowing what could be learned in conversation may keep people from having the very experiences that would show them how much they can learn in conversation,” the researchers write in their article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“If we fail to use our capacity for learning from others to its full extent, we’re shortchanging ourselves of the full human experience.”

Stav Atir, assistant professor of management at the Wisconsin School of Business

Atir and her colleagues posit that these open-ended conversations have strategic benefits in the workplace, too.

Conversations can improve not only knowledge transfer but also knowledge creation. Through spontaneous conversations, people working in the same organization can share useful information—norms in the organization, information about tasks, and ideas. Much institutional knowledge isn’t learned or taught in a formal, structured way. And past work shows that greater transfer of knowledge between organizational units is associated with better performance.

“We know that being able to accurately evaluate and capitalize on learning opportunities is a key skill for managers and employees across all industries,” says Atir.

The study randomly paired strangers for a 10-minute conversation and compared how much each participant expected to learn before the conversation with how much they reported learning after the conversation. Though the content varied, participants consistently learned more than they expected from these conversations. The informational worth of a conversation included autobiographical information, understanding another’s perspective, and acquiring advice or instruction on any topic. 

So why do people underestimate learning?

  • People base expectations on what readily comes to mind; therefore, imagined conversation contains systematically less information than the actual conversational experience.
  • People can better estimate what they might learn given a specific topic. The ambiguity of open-ended conversation makes it difficult to conceive of what could be learned. 
  • Speculatively, people do not choose conversation topics at random but instead gravitate toward topics of mutual interest by asking questions. This can mean meandering across a vast and unpredictable array of topics.

While organizational performance and creativity can be affected by a lack of conversations, there are wider implications for society. Talking with others communicates norms, creates shared understanding, conveys morality, shares knowledge, provides different perspectives, and more.

Other people are a powerful source of information. “If we fail to use our capacity for learning from others to its full extent,” says Atir, “we’re shortchanging ourselves of the full human experience.”

Access the recently released working paper, “Talking with Strangers is Surprisingly Informative.”