Humans are social animals. We have invested tremendous effort and ingenuity into devising new ways to communicate with each other, and the history of economic and technological progress traces those advances. But our ability to create new mediums for communication may have outstripped our ability to use or distinguish between them effectively. Research by Chicago Booth’s Nicholas Epley suggests that no matter what the next innovation in communication might be, there is no substitute for the human voice when it comes to conveying one’s humanity, intelligence, and state of mind. Recognizing that is not intuitive for many of us—but it can have important consequences for our careers and personal relationships.
1. Why your voice is a window to your mind
What’s on your mind? The people you interact with are constantly making inferences about this, just as you are in regard to them. This is no easy feat: the human brain can be in an almost innumerable variety of mental states, none of which are directly observable by others. Epley says the sound of your voice is a key part of communicating your state of mind, just as hearing someone else's is an important cue to their mental state.
(upbeat music) Narrator: The average human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. Each of those is connected to up to 10,000 other neurons through synapses that can be in a variety of states ranging from excitatory to inhibitory. When neuroscientists crunch these numbers, they find that your brain can be in more possible mental states than there are elementary particles in the known universe.
And yet, we make inferences about the minds of others almost as easily as we breath, causing us to make inaccurate assumptions more often than we would guess. This creates a lot of misunderstanding in everyday social life.
So what’s the secret to understanding those around us?
Nicholas Epley: What we find in our research is that a really critical cue for understanding the mind of another person is actually their voice. It’s hard to see another person’s mind. I can’t see you thinking or feeling. I can’t see a want. I can’t touch an attitude. I can’t hold a belief. A mind, as the ancient Greeks recognized, is ineffable. It’s invisible. I can’t see it directly in you.
But what we find in our research is that you sometimes can hear it. That is, a person’s voice contains a lot of information, through language, that conveys both the contents of what’s on a person’s mind, what they’re actually thinking or feeling, as well as the very presence of another person’s mind, the fact that they actually are thinking or feeling.
Narrator: Chicago Booth’s Nick Epley and several other researchers ran a study where they asked participants to describe a moment in their life where they made a decision that had an outcome that was positive or negative.
Nicholas Epley: We were able to use the audiovisual—what you’re seeing and hearing right now, so you can see and hear the person telling their story. We were able to take just the audio from that—you could just listen to what I’m saying to you now. And we also took a transcript of that, so we could get a text-based version of this. We also had them write the story to us, so this was a pure text-based story.
So the participants in our experiment then watched, listened, read the transcript, or read the written report of this decision, and they simply rendered judgments about that person, and in particular, they rendered judgments about that person’s mind.
How thoughtful, how intelligent, how rational, how sophisticated is this person? And what we found was that the presence of a person’s mind, how thoughtful and intelligent and rational this person seemed, was really carried on their voice, such that you judged the person to be more thoughtful and intelligent and rational when you heard what the person had to say, either audiovisual or audio—those two conditions didn’t differ from each other—compared to when you read what the person had to say, when you read the transcript of what they had to say or when you read their written description.
Narrator: Just as most people don’t consciously consider whether a voice is present when making a judgment about someone else, many of us don’t recognize how the absence of our voice might affect the message we’re sending. Epley ran another experiment, where he had people come into the laboratory and communicate a thought about 10 different topics, either sincerely or sarcastically, using their voice or using email.
Nicholas Epley: So you can talk about the weather in Chicago, right? And you could write a statement saying, “The weather in Chicago is great,” and you could mean it very sincerely. Or you could say [sarcastically], “The weather in Chicago is great.”
Narrator: Then they brought in participants to act as message receivers, who either listened to the messages or read them. Receivers who heard the messages were significantly better at guessing whether they were sincere or sarcastic. But, just as importantly, those who communicated over email overestimated how easily the sincerity of their messages could be decoded. The same was not true of those who used their voice to communicate.
Nicholas Epley: But that effect that seems somewhat obvious to us was not obvious to the people who were actually communicating those messages. That is, the senders, when they were communicating over email, thought that the recipient would be just as accurate, that is, would get just as many correct as when they were communicating with their voice.
In fact, over email, they were communicating at chance level. The recipient was no better than chance at guessing whether your message was intended to be sincere or sarcastic. But as communicators, because you know what you’re trying to communicate to somebody else, you know that that statement, (sarcastic laughing) is meant to be sarcastic, it can seem like it’s gonna be more obvious to the recipient than it actually is.
A person’s voice contains a lot of cues. In many ways, it’s the closest that you will ever come to the mind of another person through hearing their language. Language evolved, after all, to convey what’s on my mind to you through words. But the voice on top of that semantic contact also contains cues to the presence of a mind.
But as a communicator, we find that people often neglect that. They don’t seem to recognize how important the medium is for conveying, accurately, the message you’re trying to convey to somebody else.
2. Why you’re probably choosing the wrong mode of communication
Since the advent of movable type, technology has been making written communication easier and easier over time—so much so that in many situations, typing may feel more natural, comfortable, and effective than having a spoken conversation. But research by Epley finds that while many people expect to have better interactions over written media, they make a better impression—and in some situations, enjoy the experience more—when they use their voice.
(upbeat music) Narrator: For most of human history, people interacted with each other in one way: we talked to each other face-to-face. Today, we have many different ways to interact with each other, and for some of us, face-to-face communication may be the exception, which leads Chicago Booth’s Nick Epley to the question: Are we missing out on something with these new forms of communication?
Nicholas Epley: And a fundamental question for us as psychologists is: Do we really understand the consequences of these different media for how we interact with each other? Do we understand the consequences they have for the inferences that we form about each other and how accurately we communicate with each other?
Our data suggest that we don’t really fully understand this very well, ’cause you lose things like the person’s voice, and that has consequences for how you judge somebody else. Our experiment suggests that people aren’t really aware of those costs.
In an online survey, we asked people, “If you wanted to be seen as especially intelligent to a potential employer, would you prefer to write an elevator to pitch to that employer or speak an elevator pitch to that employer?” Most said, in order to be intelligent—the majority, about 75 percent of people—said that they would rather write than speak. Our data suggest that that’s just flat-out wrong, that they would be seen as more intelligent if somebody heard what they had to say.
Narrator: Epley’s research has uncovered another mistake people make when considering text-based or voice-based communication: how awkward a spoken conversation will be. In one study, Epley and his coresearchers asked participants to think about a person they had not connected with in a while, and then to plan to reach out and connect with that person either through email or over the phone. Before the subjects actually reached out to their estranged friends, the researchers asked them to predict how the interaction would go.
Nicholas Epley: And what we found was that people expected to feel more connected to the other person. They expected to enjoy their interaction more when they talked than when they typed. They seemed to have some sense that I feel a kinship with you, I feel more connected to your mind, I understand you better, at least, when I talk to you than when I type to you, in this data. But they also expected the interaction to be much more awkward, significantly more awkward if they talked to the person than if they typed to the person.
When we then asked our participants to say how they would prefer to reconnect to an old friend, you can probably guess the result.
Narrator: The majority preferred email.
Nicholas Epley: Their sense of how awkward the interaction would be guided their preference, their choice of how they would like to reconnect with this old person.
Narrator: The researchers randomly assigned the subjects to connect with their friends over the phone or over email. After the interaction, they reported how it went.
Nicholas Epley: They expected that they would feel more connected when they talked than when they typed, and they were right. They did. They felt more connected when they talked to their old friend than when they typed to their old friend, but remember, they also expected that talking would feel significantly more awkward than typing to the other person, and there they were just wrong.
In fact, the interactions were no more awkward when they talked to the person than when they typed to the person, by their own reports. But that was the very variable that was guiding their choice of how to interact with the other person, what medium they would want to interact with the other person through.
Our data suggest that that misunderstanding about how awkward that interaction would be would lead people to choose a less optimal medium for interacting or reconnecting with an old friend. How we interact with other people, the medium through which we connect with other people has complicated consequences. There are costs and benefits to each method of interacting with somebody else. Social media technology is increasingly moving away from voice-based interactions, increasingly moving to more efficient, text-only medium of interaction.
Our data suggest people don’t seem to fully recognize the cost of doing that. And I worry a little bit that these kinds of costs are not the kinds of costs that we’re gonna come to recognize as we get to use this technology more. It’s not necessarily gonna become more obvious to us over time, because it takes a long time to recognize these effects in daily life.
Narrator: It’s an incredible convenience to be able to connect with others around the world with the click of a button. But Epley’s research suggests we also have to be aware of what we give up when we choose to communicate with anything other than our voice.
3. To land a job, use your voice
Many job-seekers are in the habit of emailing resumes and cover letters to potential employers. Salespeople and other persuaders often send their pitches via written media as well. And while these approaches might be efficient, they leave out something important: the communicator’s voice. Research by Epley suggests that the sound of your voice is an important cue to the presence of a thoughtful, intelligent mind—and that the recipient of your message will likely regard you more positively if you convey it through speech rather than text.
(upbeat music) Narrator: When you’re applying for a job, the impression you make, whether you come off as intelligent, rational, and compassionate, for example, may be very important above and beyond the contents of your résumé.
But how do you convey traits like those to a potential employer? Chicago Booth’s Nick Epley says that having the employer hear your voice can help.
Nicholas Epley: There are lots of domains in life where the kind of mind that we convey to other people has important implications for how other people treat us. If you are trying to hire somebody else for a job, of course you wanna hire somebody who seems mindful, who seems thoughtful and intelligent and rational and capable of feeling compassion and empathy for others. That is, you wanna hire somebody who seems to have a thoughtful, humanlike mind.
In some of our research, we find that the way in which you interact with somebody then has important consequences for these kinds of outcomes. So in one experiment, we had MBA students here at the University of Chicago—some of the best MBA students on the planet, who are in the business of interviewing for jobs. They’re here, in part, to be trained in ways that allow them to do their jobs effectively, and of course, they’re also trying to get the best jobs that they can to put their skills to good use. An elevator pitch is just a two- to three-minute statement where I, as a candidate, try to explain to you, ideal employer, why I am the perfect candidate for your job.
Narrator: The researchers had students come into their lab and give them an elevator pitch for their dream job. They captured a video version and also had the students write out their pitch. From these materials, they got four different versions of the pitch: one version written by the students, one transcript of the spoken pitch, one audio recording of the pitch, and one video recording of the pitch. Then they asked professional recruiters to evaluate them.
Nicholas Epley: And in all of these experiments, what we had our observers do was report how mindful they thought the person was, how thoughtful, intelligent, and rational the potential employee was. We had them rate how much they . . . their impression of the person overall, to what extent did they have a positive versus negative impression of the potential job applicant, and we also had them report how interested they would be in hiring this person for a job if they were actually doing this in real life.
Narrator: The researchers found that the potential employers viewed the students as more thoughtful, intelligent, and mindful when they heard what they had to say rather than reading either the transcript or the written pitch. They also formed a more positive impression when they heard the pitches and were more likely to report wanting to hire the student. Seeing the students delivering their pitches, as opposed to just hearing them, didn’t significantly affect the recruiters’ impressions.
Nicholas Epley: Interestingly, we found that people themselves didn’t seem to appreciate the importance of the context in which they were conveying their message for how they would be judged. So our MBA students did not predict that they would be judged meaningfully differently depending on whether somebody could hear them or read them, when in fact they were judged meaningfully differently.
We also found in a survey that we conducted of folks online where we asked them to say how they would rather interact with somebody in order to seem most intelligent, most thoughtful, most rational, a majority of people, about 75 percent of people, said that they would be more interested in writing to somebody than in speaking to somebody. Our data suggests that, in fact, that’s a bad intuition. Our data suggest that precisely the opposite could be true in everyday life, where your mind tends to be conveyed through your voice.
Narrator: The data suggest that if you communicate verbally, you are likely to be perceived as more thoughtful and intelligent, which is important for more than just employment.
Nicholas Epley: If you’re not just trying to get a job, convince somebody that you’re a thoughtful, intelligent person, but if you’re also trying to get somebody to take you seriously, trying to persuade somebody to change their mind, to take your argument seriously, you probably wanna have them hear, quite literally, what you have to say because the presence of your thoughtful, intelligent mind comes through your voice more than you might imagine.
4. What your voice tells others about your humanity
Amidst a climate of divisive politics and increasing polarization, it can be easy to marginalize someone else as a mindless, or heartless, creature. But Epley says that the sound of your voice can help ward off such dehumanizing tendencies. When we hear each other speak, we’re more likely to recognize the presence of a thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate mind—even if we don’t agree with what the other person is saying.
Narrator: Dehumanization, the tendency to regard other people as less than fully human, has a long and dark history that transcends any particular time, place, or culture.
What conditions allow someone to discount another person’s humanity? Chicago Booth’s Nick Epley has been running experiments to find out.
Nicholas Epley: As psychologists, when we think about what is it that it means to dehumanize somebody, what we find is that it’s treating other people as if they lack a mind, as if other people are incapable of thinking, like an animal maybe, or are incapable of feeling. You think of them as an object or like a machine or like a robot.
And so we can dehumanize other people in these two different ways. And what we tend to find is that dehumanization varies quite a bit across contexts. That is, the degree to which we treat other people as if they are mindless isn’t constant. It varies, and where it tends to show up the most are in cases where another person’s mind really seems to be fundamentally different from our own, particularly in cases where another person really seems to fundamentally disagree with us about some important issues.
And those are the cases, cases of disagreement, particularly in politics these days, where we see dehumanization showing up most. I’m sensible. I’m rational. I’m OK. You, you folks, you folks who have these very different beliefs, you question whether you’re capable of thinking or feeling like I am.
Narrator: This tendency may be all the more alarming given the high levels of polarization in contemporary US politics and in democracies around the world.
Nicholas Epley: So how is it that we come to recognize the mind of another person? We find in our research that a person’s voice is really important for recognizing the presence of a mind in somebody else, and we also find that it’s central to humanizing another person.
Narrator: On the Tuesday before the 2016 presidential election, Epley and his team conducted an experiment. They brought both people planning to vote for Hillary Clinton and people planning to vote for Donald Trump into the lab, and had them explain why they were voting for their particular candidate. The researchers filmed their verbal explanations and also had them write them out.
Nicholas Epley: And so, in the video camera case, we could get three stimuli out of this. We could get an audiovisual stimulus, so you could see and hear the person. We could just get the audio stimulus. We strip out the person’s body and you just hear what they have to say. And we can also take a transcript of what you said—so you can just take my words out of this video, for instance, and just get a transcript.
What we then did was we had observers watch or read or listen to these explanations, and then they judged the person, basically in terms of how human they were, in terms of: How much of a humanlike mind did they have? And these involved measures like how sophisticated, how thoughtful, how intelligent is this person, and also questions related to this person’s emotional experience, so how capable is this person of experiencing empathy or compassion?
Narrator: They asked the observers about their own political preferences and then had them judge a person they either agreed or disagreed with.
Nicholas Epley: And so what we found here in this experiment was that the tendency to dehumanize somebody else really emerged most strongly when you read what somebody who voted for the other person had to say. When you’re listening to somebody who disagreed with you explain their position, you judge them to be significantly more thoughtful, more intelligent, more rational, more mindful, more humanlike when you heard what they had to say than when you read exactly the same content, either in a transcript or in their written text.
Narrator: Watching versus listening to someone explain their views didn’t have much of an effect. The researchers concluded that the voice rather than body language or other nonverbal cues was what made observers less likely to dehumanize their counterparts.
Nicholas Epley: So how do we humanize somebody more often in daily life, particularly in cases where you’re inclined to think about them as an animal or object, you’re likely to think about them as having less than fully humanlike attributes than you have yourself? We find that being able to hear them, actually listening to what somebody else has to say, is a critical feature of recognizing that they have a mind that’s at least more similar to your own than you might have guessed otherwise.
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