Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skills

By John O. Greene; Brant R. Burleson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
MESSAGE RECEPTION SKILLS
IN SOCIAL COMMUNICATION
Robert S. Wyer, Jr.
Rashmi Adaval
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

This chapter reviews the factors that influence people's ability to comprehend and evaluate the messages they receive. Upon first consideration, these factors may seem self-evident. For example, recipients' ability to comprehend a message undoubtedly increases with the amount of knowledge they have already acquired about the topic at hand. However, possession of this knowledge is hardly a guarantee that recipients will interpret a message in the manner the communicator intends, or that they will evaluate the validity of the communicator's assertion accurately. Message reception may in fact be inherently limited for two general reasons.

First, people who receive a message usually do not bring all of the potentially relevant concepts and knowledge they have acquired to bear on its interpretation (Higgins, 1996; Taylor & Fiske, 1978). Rather, they apply only a subset of this knowledge that happens to be easily accessible in memory at the time. Moreover, they are often unaware of the factors that lead them to apply one subset of knowledge rather than another (Bargh, 1994, 1997) Therefore, biases can occur in recipients' interpretation of information and their evaluation of its implications. And even when recipients recognize that their interpretation of a message might be biased, they are frequently unable to assess the magnitude of this bias accurately, and so their efforts to compensate for the bias are inaccurate.

Second, the literal meaning of a message is not always the meaning that the communicator intends to convey. Often, a message may be ironic, or may be intended to convey an attitude rather than a statement of fact. The identification of a message's intended meaning, however, often requires not only knowledge of the topic at hand but also inferences about the communicator's knowledge and his or her reasons for transmitting the message in question. An understanding of the communicator's objectives, in turn, may often require inferences about what the communicator assumes concerning recipients' own attitudes and opinions about the topic. Even when recipients have the motivation to make these inferences, the information necessary to do so is often not available.

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