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The Secret Cause of Flame Wars 389

Mz6 writes "According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I've only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time. "That's how flame wars get started," says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University. "People in our study were convinced they've accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance," says Epley. The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers. Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time."
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The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:24AM (#14705491) Journal
    I think that because we are using advanced forms of technology to send information, we feel the need to make things develop more quickly.

    If you and your friend are having an argument through e-mail, you probably feel that you have to cover the whole spectrum of abrasiveness with each e-mail you send. In real life, you would have the social tact to start out with statements and leave room for yourself to retract what you've said or to give a little ground and end up mutually agreeing on something.

    What seems to be my problem with e-mail is that I send a message and I run the topic into the ground in that first e-mail (saying everything about it). Now, that's written in stone like a Slashdot comment. No backsies.

    And the fact that he might not get the e-mail for a while makes me want to accelerate the severity of the issue since we don't want to take two weeks discussing it. Had we been more gradual at accelerating the argument, things said could probably have been avoided.
    The Secret Cause of Flame Wars
    Secret? Not quite. I might end an e-mail with "...screw Oasis and Weezer, every Beatles' album is far greater than all of theirs combined." Now, in real life, I'd say that with a malevolent shit-eating grin on my face signaling that I know it's not true. But my friend might read it and imagine me with a stone faced militant music-nazi expression and my finger pointing into his chest. What ensues is a standard flame war. The cause of this is no secret.
  • by ChristopherA ( 519178 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @05:10PM (#14710551) Homepage
    You should definately read the original paper "When what you type isn't what they read: The perseverance of stereotypes and expectancies over e-mail" [], it has a lot of interesting stuff in it.

    If you read it you'll find a mistake that showed up in the Wired piece. People in their experiments didn't have the a 50/50 chance of detecting emotional tone -- instead, the chance of picking correctly the intent was no better then random chance. A much more interesting interpretation than 50/50.

    There is a long history of academic research substantiating Eply/Kruger thesis that we don't interpret the emotional content (or as they call it, para-linguistic content) of text very well. The first academic paper that I've found that deals with this topic goes back to: [] Sproull, L. and Kiesler, S. 1988. Reducing Social Context Clues: Electronic Mail in Organizational Communication. Readings in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 684--712. Los Altos, California: Morgan Kaufmann.

    I've written more about this topic and other sources for the cycle of flames in my blog at Flames: Emotional Amplification of Text [].

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