The Folly of Familiarity

Aug 05, 2016


We’ve all had the feeling of everything clicking with a close friend, significant other, or long-time colleague. For moments in time, two minds move in unison, each anticipating and complementing the other like an orchestrated ballet. These moments produce lasting memories and enviable professional results, yet what happens when the show stops? Emerging research indicates the familiarity felt by good friends leads to overconfidence when communicating in new situations. Let’s explore a study supporting this claim, which proposes a framework to limit the negative impact of familiarity in the workplace.

Research by a group of psychologists from Williams College, The University of Chicago, and MIT suggests people overestimate their ability to communicate with close friends as compared to strangers. In their study, participants gave ten ambiguous instructions to both a close friend and a complete stranger, and then guessed how many phrases the listener would correctly interpret. Speakers thought their friends were more likely to correctly interpret instructions than strangers. In reality, friends and strangers performed identically. The authors coined the phrase “closeness-communication bias” to describe this phenomenon. These findings fly in the face of the intuitive, sentence-finishing connection many close friends, spouses, and colleagues claim to have.

Clearly, highly controlled lab results don’t always translate to the real world. In the study, instructions were assigned rather than selected by the speaker. It’s possible over-confidence occurred because friends were used to discussing topics they’re both familiar with, and they incorrectly extended that confidence to new topics. However, even if this were the case, the communication risk in the workplace still exists for new projects, where employees are less familiar with the material.

So what’s the solution?

The best way to avoid miscommunication is to very purposefully define all terms and assumptions at the start of a project or conversation. The underlying issue with overconfidence when communicating is different understandings of supposedly “shared” assumptions.

At Elicit, we constantly engage in new client projects so we must closely monitor both our own assumptions as well as our clients’. For example, engagements often take the form of identifying a client’s top customers. High revenue, low cost, and strong online engagement metrics are typically assumptions regarding “top customers” that Elicit and the client share. However, most companies have business-specific information, such as engagement with a budding referral program, which complicates the simple equation. As consultants, it’s our job to explore a client’s particular scenario and to explicitly define all assumptions at the outset. Further down the line, this upfront work saves a lot of time and headaches.

Flaws in human judgment such as the closeness-communication bias are common. Some imperfections we know how to handle, and others we struggle with, but those of which we are ignorant are by far the most dangerous. The bonds of friendship enhance us in many ways, but take care to avoid leaning too hard on familiarity during the exchange of ideas.


  • Savitsky, Kenneth, Boaz Keysar, Nicholas Epley, Travis Carter, and Ashley Swanson. “The Closeness-communication Bias: Increased Egocentrism among Friends versus Strangers.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47.1 (2011): 269-73. Web.