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Blinks Change How We Talk To Each Other

By Roni Dengler
Dec 12, 2018 7:00 PMMay 21, 2019 5:45 PM
blinking conversation
(Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)


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You probably didn’t notice but the last time you talked with a colleague or chatted with a friend, you blinked. A lot. Blinks are a conversational cue akin to nodding one’s head, according to a new study published today in the journal PLOS One.

As such, the unconscious reflex changes how people talk to each other. Even the subtlest non-verbal clues impact our conversations, the finding suggests.

“Our findings indicate that even visually subtle behavior such as listener blinking is anything but irrelevant to face-to-face communication,” wrote Paul Hömke, a language and cognition scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, who led the new research.

Open And Shut

Blinking is a reflex. The involuntary action blocks wayward debris from getting into our eyeballs and helps to keep them lubricated. Although infants hardly blink, adults do it far more often than necessary — about 13,500 times a day — making blinking the most frequent thing we do with our faces.

In work published last year, Hömke video recorded people having a conversation. He noticed the listener tended to blink when the speaker was about to come to an end. The blinks often coincided with heads nods and other nonverbal cues that signaled “message received” from a listener. In the current study, he wanted to find out if listener blinks play a role in everyday communication.

Got It

The researchers recruited 35 Danish adults to have a conversation with a computer-generated avatar. The avatar asked participants a series open-ended questions, such as “How was your weekend?” and responded as if engaged in a conversation by saying things like, “Oh, how interesting!”

As subjects answered questions, the avatar nodded and blinked. In one setup, the avatar’s blinks were long (they lasted about 600 milliseconds) and in another, they were short (about 200 milliseconds long). The study participants did not report noticing the duration of the avatar’s blinks, but it did impact their conversation.

Participants changed the length of their responses depending on the avatar’s nonverbal cues. The research subjects shortened their answers when the avatar’s blinks were long, Hömke and colleagues report.

“Long blinks by the avatar indeed worked to signal ‘message received’ [and] abbreviated the speaker’s answers,” Hömke said.

Long blinks tell the speaker in a conversation that the listener has enough information. The findings suggest people use blinking to communicate understanding when talking to each other and demonstrates the power of nonverbal cues. An unconscious reflex that happens literally in the blink of an eye says: “Got it. Let’s move on.”

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