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Competition Reduces Response Times in Multiparty Conversation

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  • Judith Holler
  • Phillip M. Alday
  • Caitlin Decuyper
  • Mareike Geiger
  • Kobin H. Kendrick
  • Antje S. Meyer


Publication details

JournalFrontiers in Psychology
DateAccepted/In press - 4 Aug 2021
DatePublished (current) - 16 Sep 2021
Number of pages12
Original languageEnglish


Natural conversations are characterized by short transition times between turns. This holds in particular for multi-party conversations. The short turn transitions in everyday conversations contrast sharply with the much longer speech onset latencies observed in laboratory studies where speakers respond to spoken utterances. There are many factors that facilitate speech production in conversational compared to laboratory settings. Here we highlight one of them, the impact of competition for turns. In multi-party conversations, speakers often compete for turns. In quantitative corpus analyses of multi-party conversation, the fastest response determines the recorded turn transition time. In contrast, in dyadic conversations such competition for turns is much less likely to arise, and in laboratory experiments with individual participants it does not arise at all. Therefore, all responses tend to be recorded. Thus, competition for turns may reduce the recorded mean turn transition times in multi-party conversations for a simple statistical reason: slow responses are not included in the means. We report two studies illustrating this point. We first report the results of simulations showing how much the response times in a laboratory experiment would be reduced if, for each trial, instead of recording all responses, only the fastest responses of several participants responding independently on the trial were recorded. We then present results from a quantitative corpus analysis comparing turn transition times in dyadic and triadic conversations. There was no significant group size effect in question-response transition times, where the present speaker often selects the next one, thus reducing competition between speakers. But, as predicted, triads showed shorter turn transition times than dyads for the remaining turn transitions, where competition for the floor was more likely to arise. Together, these data show that turn transition times in conversation should be interpreted in the context of group size, turn transition type, and social setting.

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