Friday, December 15, 2017

The Power of the Human Voice

Human beings are drawn to the sound of human voices. It's why overhearing half of a conversation can be so distracting. It's why DJs will talk over the intro of the song, but make sure they stop before the singer comes in. It's why Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell, two a cappella arrangers, recommend arrangements be kept short (less than 4 minutes).

And new research shows yet another way a human voice can have a powerful impact - it keeps us from dehumanizing someone we disagree with:
[F]ailing to infer that another person has mental capacities similar to one’s own is the essence of dehumanization—that is, representing others as having a diminished capacity to either think or feel, as being more like an animal or an object than like a fully developed human being. Instead of attributing disagreement to different ways of thinking about the same problem, people may attribute disagreement to the other person’s inability to think reasonably about the problem. [W]e suggest that a person’s voice, through speech, provides cues to the presence of thinking and feeling, such that hearing what a person has to say will make him or her appear more humanlike than reading what that person has to say.
They conducted four experiments to test their hypotheses: that dehumanization is less likely to occur when we hear the person speaking their thoughts, rather than simply reading them. It wasn't even necessary to see the person doing the talking - that is, video and audio versus audio only did not result in reliably different evaluations. The authors conclude:
On a practical level, our work suggests that giving the opposition a voice, not just figuratively in terms of language, but also literally in terms of an actual human voice, may enable partisans to recognize a difference in beliefs between two minds without denigrating the minds of the opposition. Modern technology is rapidly changing the media through which people interact, enabling interactions between people around the globe and across ideological divides who might otherwise never interact. These interactions, however, are increasingly taking place over text-based media that may not be optimally designed to achieve a user’s goals. Individuals should choose the context of their interactions wisely. If mutual appreciation and understanding of the mind of another person is the goal of social interaction, then it may be best for the person’s voice to be heard.

This research inspires some interesting questions. For instance, what about computer-generated voices? We know we're getting better at generating realistic voices, but what is the impact when you know the voice is generated by a machine and not another human being? Also, the researchers admit that they couldn't test the impact of visual and audio cues separately. But what if you had an additional condition where you see the person, but their words are displayed as captions instead?

What are your thoughts on this issue? And where would you like to see this research go in the future?


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