Vocal Effects December 2015
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Since the invention of the telephone, people have used their voices to communicate with remote conversation partners for both business and pleasure. Today, increasingly sophisticated technologies enable telecommunication for professional and personal purposes. The popularity of telecommunication inadvertently increases the influence of vocal qualities in interactions. Can the sound of one's voice play a role in a variety of situations and influence certain important outcomes? Recent evidence from a variety of research studies suggests that it can.
Individuals associated loud voices with physical proximity.
Researchers from the Eindhoven University of Technology (Eindhoven, Netherlands) conducted experiments using the loudness of a conversation partner's voice during a mobile-phone or Skype (Microsoft; Redmond, Washington) call. During the experiments, participants had a conversation with either a loud conversation partner or a quiet conversation partner. Participating individuals associated loud voices with physical proximity, perceiving high-volume speakers as being closer to them than were low-volume speakers. People should not make judgments about the proximity of a conversation partner on the basis of the loudness of a voice they hear through a telecommunications technology, yet they do. This phenomenon suggests intriguing possibilities for further study of the effects of voice in telecommunication. For example, in addition to feeling physically close to loud remote conversation partners, do participants feel emotionally close to them? Increasing knowledge about such effects also will provide a better understanding of how to design virtual interactions and related systems.
Evidence suggests that voice quality affects a range of important judgments, including judgments about rank in a social hierarchy. During a study, researchers from San Diego State University (San Diego, California) and Columbia University (New York, New York) assigned a powerful role to some study participants and a powerless role to others. Study participants in a powerful role signaled their high rank by using voices that were higher pitched, more monotone, and more variable in loudness than those in use by participants in a powerless, low-ranking role. Follow-up studies showed that people naturally use pitch, loudness, and loudness variability to imply status. Making accurate judgments about the rank of individuals within a hierarchy can serve important adaptive functions and make groups operate more smoothly. Nonverbal bodily cues can sometimes send mixed messages, but voice cues appear to provide a more unequivocal sign of status. By extension, anyone can change his or her voice to inflate his or her status, and doing so could have positive effects in hierarchically charged situations such as negotiations for promotions or higher salaries.
In the future, voice quality may play an increasingly important role in hiring decisions, according to researchers from the University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois) Booth School of Business. The researchers assigned participants into three groups of recruiters and one group of job candidates. The first group of recruiters watched the candidates on video, the second group had access to only the videos' audio track, and the third group could only read transcriptions of the videos. Members of the second group, who only heard the candidates speak, had the best overall opinion of the candidates and were the most inclined to hire them. The recruiters who made decisions solely on the basis of voice may have formed impressions about the candidates by focusing more explicitly on vocal cues that signal rank or power. Such cues likely saw dilution in the videos and were completely absent in the video transcripts. This study clearly highlights the relevance of voice in impression formation, which can affect important hiring and retention decisions. Before firms decide to use audio-only interviews, evidence must show that voice interviews result in objectively better hires than do in-person, video, and written interviews.
One drawback is that vocal cues can bias judgments to the point at which those vocal cues link to social categories that some people perceive as negative. Prejudice against women in the workplace is one example of such biased judgments. According to Facebook (Menlo Park, California) chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Wharton School professor Adam Grant, people frequently hold men and women who voice their opinions in group settings to completely different standards. People often perceive women who are vocal about their opinions in the workplace as overly aggressive. In addition, ideas from female employees see discounting and criticism more frequently than do ideas from male employees. Thus, women have two choices: They may stay silent in meetings, which could have negative effects on the success of the company, or they may speak their minds and risk rejection from their peers. Already, many of the world's leading orchestras are conducting blind auditions to overcome gender bias, and Sandberg and Dr. Grant believe that organizations should actively implement speaking rules that eliminate gender bias where feasible.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia) and Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) studied how males treated females while playing Bungie's (Bellevue, Washington) Halo 3 video game online. The researchers found that male players who lost matches were more likely to make hostile comments to female players than were male players who won matches. In addition, male players "were thrown off" when they heard female voices during game play, which points to the dominance of males in gaming. The researchers hypothesize that the male players who made hostile comments to female players did so in attempts to maintain their dominant social status. Interestingly, although males who were performing poorly in the game were the most likely to disparage female players, they also tended to make more submissive statements to male players who were performing well. Nevertheless, the study results seem to indicate that vocal signals of gender alone can trigger complex emotional responses and affect behaviors in social systems. This finding suggests that a need exists for a more complex understanding of when to and when not to use voice in interactions.
Finally, research that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Massachusetts) research fellow Max Little began in 2012 shows that certain vocal qualities can be an early sign of Parkinson's disease. While working toward his doctorate at the University of Oxford (Oxford, England), Dr. Little created an algorithm that identifies characteristics unique to the voices of Parkinson's sufferers. Dr. Little established the Parkinson's Voice Initiative (www.parkinsonsvoice.org), which aims to improve the algorithm by collecting 10,000 voice samples through telephone messages. To date, Dr. Little and his colleagues have achieved a 98.6% detection accuracy for Parkinson's disease.
In sum, the quality of one's voice can be a powerful communication tool and influence outcomes even more than actual spoken words can. Organizations can make use of these insights in human resources, gaming, virtual reality, and various diagnostic applications.