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Brief silence in conversation evokes negative emotions

20 January 2011

A flowing conversation evokes positive feelings – it gives people the idea that ‘they belong’ and that others agree with them. If a brief silence falls in a conversation, this can evoke negative emotions and feelings of rejection. This has been revealed by research by the Groningen social psychologists Namkje Koudenburg, Tom Postmes and Ernestine Gordijn, published this week in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Two experiments were conducted to investigate the effect of silence on social needs. In the first project, 102 students were given a scenario to read. Half of the test subjects were given a scenario where the I figure makes a slightly controversial remark, after which silence falls. The other test subjects were given the same scenario without the conversation being broken by silence. The test subjects who imagined the situation with a brief break felt more anxious, more rejected, less self-assured and felt that they fitted in less well than test subjects who read the scenario without the break.

Flowing conversation leads to social validation

Further, the test subjects who read the scenario without a brief silence had the feeling that others agreed with them. They felt more reinforced in their opinions than when there was a brief silence, despite there not being any actual difference between what was said in both scenarios. This is an indication that not only the content, but also how the conversation flows is indicative of whether other people agree with us or not.

Unconscious process

In the second experiment, test subjects were shown a video of three people having a conversation. The conversation lasted 6 minutes and there were two situations. In one situation the conversation proceeded smoothly. In the other, the conversation was broken by a brief silence lasting 4 seconds. Otherwise the situations were identical. Although the viewers were not aware of the brief silence, they were strongly influenced by it. Test subjects who watched the video with the brief silence reported less self-assurance and feelings of rejection and exclusion. The results support the idea that people are particularly sensitive to rejection signals, possibly as a result of the evolutionary importance of group processes for the survival chances of the individual.

‘Social needs can be satisfied in a flowing conversation, such as the need to belong, the need to feel self-assured and the need for social validation. If the flow of conversation is interrupted, however, even if only very briefly, negative emotions and feelings are the result’, explains researcher Namkje Koudenburg in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Note for the press

More information:

- Koudenburg, N. & Postmes, T., & Gordijn, E.H. (in press). Disrupting the flow: How brief silences in group conversations affect social needs. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology :

- Namkje Koudenburg, tel. 050-363 9432, e-mail: N.Koudenburg


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.55 a.m.
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