Confusion Contagion

Jessica Love reviews a study that suggests “we can experience bewilderment on behalf of others”:

Psychologists at the University of York plunked students in front of a computer and presented them with pairs of sentences. The first was always presented aurally, with the students wearing headphones; the second appeared silently as text on the monitor. Crucially, some of the participants were seated next to someone without headphones—someone, that is, who could read the second sentence, but couldn’t listen to the first one.

For some sentence pairs, the second sentence was easy to comprehend on its own: one doesn’t need to hear The fishmonger prepared the fish to make sense of The fish had gills. But in other pairs, the first sentence provided some crucial context: without first hearing In the boy’s dream, he could breath under water, it was tough to interpret The boy had gills.

Yet even the students who’d heard the first sentence experienced an N400 (a pattern of neural activity associated with processing difficulty) in response to the second sentence—but only if seated beside someone without headphones. They knew their neighbors were probably confused, and registered that confusion vicariously. In fact, the N400 pattern was just as strong for students sitting next to people who hadn’t heard the contextualizing sentence as it was when these students themselves read a sentence like The boy had gills without context.