People who hold similar beliefs tend to more closely mirror, or align with, each other’s speech patterns, according to a new study at the University of Rochester. In addition, people who are better at compromising align even more closely.
The researchers designed an experiment in which participants were asked to listen to ideologically charged messages with a set sentence structure. After listening to the diatribes they were told to describe some illustrations showing characters performing simple actions, such as a waitress giving a banana to a monk.
Most participants subconsciously mimicked the sentence structure presented in the listening phase of the experiment. But, how closely the participants aligned with the speaker varied based on how much they agreed with the speaker’s views (as assessed in a post-experimental interview). Those who shared views with the speaker aligned their speech patterns more closely to the speaker’s.
“Few people are aware that they alter their word pronunciation, speech rate, and even the structure of their sentences during conversation,” explained Florian Jaeger, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and coauthor of the study recently published in the journal Language Variation and Change.
“What we have found is that the degree to which speakers align is socially mediated.”
For example, during the experiment, participants heard phrases such as “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers.” Others heard the same ideologically-loaded idea, but expressed in a different sentence structure: “Congress is giving welfare moochers too much money.” (Notice the order of the phrases “too much money” — which refers to the thing being given — and “welfare moochers” — the recipient.)
Those who heard the first version, “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers” (the recipient is mentioned after the thing being given), for example, were more likely to describe a picture as “The waitress is giving a banana to the monk” rather than “The waitress is giving the monk a banana” when they agreed with the speaker’s views.
Furthermore, participants who described themselves as compromising in conflict situations, showed even more linguistic alignment with the speaker.
On the other hand, when listeners disagreed with the opinion expressed by the speaker, they aligned less or not at all.
“Our social judgments about others and our general attitude toward conflict are affecting even the most automatic and subconscious aspects of how we express ourselves with language,” said lead-author Kodi Weatherholtz, a post-doctoral researcher in Jaeger’s lab.
“One reason people tend to align certain speech patterns is because it facilitates communication,” Jaeger said. When we align how we talk, then sounds, words, and sentence structures become more predictable, making it easier to understand each other.
Similarity is a powerful social force, Jaeger explained. In short, we tend to like people who share certain characteristics with us. Therefore, speaking in a way that is more or less similar to others can be a subtle means of influencing liking, trust, and other interpersonal emotions.
Source: University of Rochester