It is not uncommon for us to draw knee-jerk conclusions about people based on how they speak. Those snap judgments aren’t always inaccurate—even when based on less than a single word, according to a new study to be presented at this month’s Acoustical Society of America meeting in Seattle.
“This is a phenomenon that occurs every day,” says study leader Erik C. Tracy, a cognitive psychologist at Ohio State University. “We are constantly speaking with people we don’t know on our phones, and just from this conversation, we might be able to identify personal characteristics about that person, such as their gender, age, race, or sexual orientation.” But what exactly, Tracy wondered, are we hearing in that speech that lets us make these decisions? He decided to focus on sexual orientation, which—previous studies had shown—can be correctly ascertained by listeners hearing only one monosyllabic word.
In a series of experiments, Tracy and colleague Nicholas P. Satariano had seven gay and seven heterosexual males record a list of monosyllabic words, such as “mass,” “food,” and “sell”. Listeners were then asked to identify the sexual orientation of the speakers when played those entire words, the first two letter sounds (say, “ma”), or just the first letter sound (“m”). Although they couldn’t accurately guess the sexual orientation of the speaker with just the first letter sound, “when presented with the first two letter sounds, listeners were 75 percent accurate,” says Tracy. “We believe that listeners are using the acoustic information contained in vowels to make this sexual orientation decision,” he says. So while listeners are not very good at making a determination when they hear just the first consonant of a word (the “m”), when they hear the first consonant and the subsequent vowel (“ma”), “their accuracy levels increase dramatically,” he says.
“I’m not sure what exactly the listeners are responding to in the vowel,” Tracy adds. “Other researchers have done various acoustic analyses to understand why gay and heterosexual men produce vowels differently. Whatever this difference is, it seems that listeners are using it to make this sexual orientation decision.”
The presentation, “Differentiating between gay and heterosexual male speech,” by Erik C. Tracy and Nicholas P. Satariano, will be in the afternoon session on Monday, May 23, in Metropolitan B at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel.
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The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) is the premier international scientific society in acoustics devoted to the science and technology of sound. Its 7,000 members worldwide represent a broad spectrum of the study of acoustics. ASA publications include The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (the world’s leading journal on acoustics), Acoustics Today magazine, books, and standards on acoustics. The society also holds two major scientific meetings each year. For more information about ASA, visit our website at http://www.acousticalsociety.org.