time is money

A slow response to a question can have surprising consequences

“If you think the answer is easy, respond fast!”

Originally Published: 
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It may not seem like much, but a second or two could make or break a job interview.

People who answer questions after a delay are seen as less sincere than those who respond quickly, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Lead author Ignazio Ziano of Grenoble Ecole de Management in France and his colleague, Deming Wang of the School of Psychology at James Cook University, reached this conclusion after conducting a series of experiments with more than 7,500 people from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

Study participants listened to an audio snippet, viewed a video, or read an account of a person responding to a simple question about situations, such as whether a person liked a cake a friend made or someone stole money from work. Response times varied from immediate to a 10-second delay, and experiment participants then rated the sincerity of the response on a sliding scale. Across all the experiments, delayed responses were rated as less sincere no matter the question.

“People believe that slower responses are less sincere than faster ones,” Ziano tells Inverse. “A delay as little as two seconds affects sincerity judgments compared to an immediate response.”

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The Strategy — These results appear to have onerous implications for anybody responding to a question, even in frivolous situations like the one with cake or ones with more weight such as during a job interview. Should you just blurt out something to appear more sincere?

“If you think the answer is easy, respond fast!” Ziano says. “On the other hand, it is not always a given that a slower response is a lie.”

The results of the study also reveal an inherent bias we all have that we should consider when evaluating someone’s sincerity. People should consider other possible reasons that a response could be delayed, such as the responder being stressed, English isn’t their first language, or the question is not as easy as the asker thinks, Ziano said.

He added that people, such as an interviewer for a job, should have other considerations besides response time when evaluating two candidates. If the job requires proficiency in Spanish, for example, and one person immediately says they know the language while the other takes three seconds to respond, an interviewer should test for language competency rather than judge the candidates strictly on their response time to the question.

These graphs show the relationship between response time of the two questions in the study and how trustworthy it made the respondent.

Ignazio Ziano and Deming Wang

Why this strategy matters to you Being aware of our (and hence others’) internal biases helps us to see past them. In this case, knowing that response times shape how all of us perceive sincerity can help us focus on other, more important factors when judging others.

“Perhaps it is best to pause and think before you make some judgments on other people’s sincerity, and give others some space to express themselves,” Ziano says.

Unfortunately, we all have our work cut out for us. Ziano and his colleague told participants in one experiment to ignore response speed when making sincerity judgments. These instructions cut the insincerity effect by about half, but did not eliminate it, Ziano says.

“Being aware and actively trying to suppress this bias can help, but is not the whole answer,” he adds.

How you can implement this strategy — To help mitigate the ill effects of slower responses, Ziano says people should practice the way they respond, especially to easy questions. There doesn’t seem to be any repercussions after a one-second delay — the bias seems to kick in at two seconds, Ziano says — so there is no need to immediately blurt out whatever comes first to mind.

“It is sufficient to maintain a normal conversation rhythm,” Ziano says. “However, perhaps there should be best practices for judging answers — for instance, making an effort to consider only the content of the response and giving less weight to response speed.”

One caveat to the research is that when a response is considered “socially undesirable” — like telling someone you don’t like their cooking — response speed does not seem to matter as much. Telling the person that their cooking isn’t good will be read as sincere no matter how long you wait to tell them. That’s also true for people who confess to crimes.

“Having to bear a personal cost — whether social disapproval or actual fines and time in jail — seems to cancel the effect of response speed,” Ziano says.

The strategy's side effects — The unfortunate side effects of this response time bias is for those who respond slower for reasons other than insincerity, such as not understanding the question or if English isn’t their first language.

“In mundane situations such as asking your friends if they like the cake, this wouldn’t matter much, and the end result may just be hurting your friends’ feelings,” Ziano said. “But in high-stakes situations such as police interrogation and court trials, this can matter a lot, potentially.”

The Inverse analysis — If you’re the one responding to a question, answer quickly if it’s something simple. Otherwise, you only have about two seconds before the delayed response bias kicks in. If you're asking the questions, be aware of this bias and consider other factors when evaluating someone’s sincerity.

Abstract — Evaluating other people’s sincerity is a ubiquitous and important part of social interactions. Fourteen experiments (total N 7,565; 10 preregistered; 11 in the main article, three in the online supplemental materials; with U.S. American and British members of the public, and French students) show that response speed is an important cue on which people base their sincerity inferences. Specifically, people systematically judged slower (vs. faster) responses as less sincere for a range of scenarios from trivial daily conversations to high stakes situations such as police interrogations. Our findings suggest that this is because slower responses are perceived to be the result of the responder suppressing automatic, truthful thoughts, and fabricating a novel answer. People also seem to have a rich lay theory of response speed, which takes into account a variety of situational factors. For instance, the effect of response delay on perceived sincerity is smaller if the response is socially undesirable, or if it can be attributed to mental effort. Finally, we showed that explicit instructions to ignore response speed can reduce the effect of response speed on judgments on sincerity. Our findings not only help ascertain the role of response speed in interpersonal inference making processes, but also carry important practical implication. In particular, the present study highlights the potential effects that may be observed in judicial settings, because the response speed of innocent suspects may mislead people to judge them as insincere and hence guilty.

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