Human conversational behavior

Abstract

Observational studies of human conversations in relaxed social settings suggest that these consist predominantly of exchanges of social information (mostly concerning personal relationships and experiences). Most of these exchanges involve information about the speaker or third parties, and very few involve critical comments or the soliciting or giving of advice. Although a policing function may still be important (e.g., for controlling social cheats), it seems that this does not often involve overt criticism of other individuals’ behavior. The few significant differences between the sexes in the proportion of conversation time devoted to particular topics are interpreted as reflecting females’ concerns with networking and males’ concerns with self-display in what amount to a conventional mating lek.

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Correspondence to R. I. M. Dunbar.

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Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Liverpool (England). His research focuses on the behavioral ecology of human and nonhuman primates and on the evolution of the social brain. Neil Duncan took a degree in human biology at University College London and is now a qualified medical practitioner. Anna Marriott studied psychology at Liverpool University.

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Dunbar, R.I.M., Marriott, A. & Duncan, N.D.C. Human conversational behavior. Hum Nat 8, 231–246 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02912493

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Key words

  • Conversational topics
  • Humans
  • Language evolution
  • Reproductive strategies
  • Sex differences