Does the voice we hear affect our opinions about the world?

Does the voice we hear affect our opinions about the world?

Andrew MacFarlane, PhD student in Linguistics, blogs about his current research.

Each day, we are bombarded with sensory information – falling leaves, bus engines, a chill wind, advertising billboards, the smell of freshly cut grass, and the faces and voices of others. This information is not collected randomly. Rather, it acts as a cue to tell us where we are, when, in what situation, with whom, and how we might appropriately respond. Much of it passes through our senses only briefly noticed, and some of it passes through completely below our awareness. The minimal amount of attention we pay to these stimuli, however, is no reflection of the effect they have on us. Indeed, sometimes it is the stimuli we are least aware of that has a deep and lasting impact.

Many studies have documented the effects such stimuli might have on us. The colour of wine can strongly affect how we taste it. How pretty or handsome a person is can affect how we rate their intelligence. Words too can have powerful effects. Given the choice of 75% lean beef, vs. 25% fatty beef, we are more likely to choose the former. More importantly, being asked to ‘opt in’ for organ donation, vs. being asked to ‘opt out’ has a dramatic effect on the number of people willing to donate their organs after death.

In my study, I presented 245 participants with an online questionnaire, which was recorded in 5 different voices. Each person was randomly assigned to one of the five identical questionnaires (identical except for the voice that read the questions). The questions related to social issues for: the elderly, women, gay men and ethnic minorities. The five voices represented each of these categories, plus a straight male to use as a comparison. I found that for most of the social issues, being asked questions by a female voice increased the probability that people would answer more supportively towards that group, and hearing the questions in a young male voice was linked to the lowest probability for social supportiveness. The exceptions to this rule were: for questions about ethnic minorities, in particular Asians, hearing the questions in an Asian male voice increased the probability that people would respond negatively to these questions, which prompts questions of racism towards this social group. And, for questions about women, it was the gay male voice which significantly increased the probability of socially supportive answers.

This study raises questions about just how stable and ‘real’ our opinions and values really are. If different voices can influence people with complete anonymity to report more or less supportive answers towards social groups, then it seems very likely that this effect will extend to wider beliefs, values and answers. It also has implications for corporations who rely on voices for their business; call centres, charities, market research companies and so forth, and also for companies who record educational CDs, spoken word books and even SatNav systems…perhaps having it in a female voice, as is widely remarked, really does make people more sympathetic drivers?

For more information, see Andrew’s web page:

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Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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