People Rely on What They Hear to Know What They’re Saying

You know what you’re going to say before you say it, right? Not necessarily, research suggests. A study from researchers at Lund University in Sweden shows that auditory feedback plays an important role in helping us determine what we’re saying as we speak. The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Our results indicate that speakers listen to their own voices to help specify the meaning of what they are saying,” says researcher Andreas Lind of Lund University, lead author of the study.

Theories about how we produce speech often assume that we start with a clear, preverbal idea of what to say that goes through different levels of encoding to finally become an utterance.

But the findings from this study support an alternative model in which speech is more than just a dutiful translation of this preverbal message:

“These findings suggest that the meaning of an utterance is not entirely internal to the speaker, but that it is also determined by the feedback we receive from our utterances, and from the inferences we draw from the wider conversational context,” Lind explains.

For the study, Lind and colleagues recruited Swedish participants to complete a classic Stroop test, which provided a controlled linguistic setting. During the Stroop test, participants were presented with various color words (e.g., “red” or “green”) one at a time on a screen and were tasked with naming the color of the font that each word was printed in, rather than the color that the word itself signified.

The participants wore headphones that provided real-time auditory feedback as they took the test — unbeknownst to them, the researchers had rigged the feedback using a voice-triggered playback system. This system allowed the researchers to substitute specific phonologically similar but semantically distinct words (“grey”, “green”) in real time, a technique they call “Real-time Speech Exchange” or RSE.

Data from the 78 participants indicated that when the timing of the insertions was right, only about one third of the exchanges were detected.

On many of the non-detected trials, when asked to report what they had said, participants reported the word they had heard through feedback, rather than the word they had actually said. Because accuracy on the task was actually very high, the manipulated feedback effectively led participants to believe that they had made an error and said the wrong word.

Overall, Lind and colleagues found that participants accepted the manipulated feedback as having been self-produced on about 85% of the non-detected trials.

Together, these findings suggest that our understanding of our own utterances, and our sense of agency for those utterances, depend to some degree on inferences we make after we’ve made them.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that while participants received several indications about what they actually said — from their tongue and jaw, from sound conducted through the bone, and from their memory of the correct alternative on the screen — they still treated the manipulated words as though they were self-produced.

This suggests, says Lind, that the effect may be even more pronounced in everyday conversation, which is less constrained and more ambiguous than the context offered by the Stroop test.

“In future studies, we want to apply RSE to situations that are more social and spontaneous — investigating, for example, how exchanged words might influence the way an interview or conversation develops,” says Lind.

“While this is technically challenging to execute, it could potentially tell us a great deal about how meaning and communicative intentions are formed in natural discourse,” he concludes.

Co-authors on the study include Lars Hall, Björn Breidegard, and Christian Balkenius of Lund University and Petter Johansson Lund University and Uppsala University. This work was supported by Uno Otterstedt’s Foundation (Grant EKDO2010/54), the Crafoord Foundation (Grant 20101020), the Swedish Research Council, the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation, the Pufendorf Institute, and the European Union Goal-Leaders project (Grant FP7 270108).

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.


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24 thoughts on “People Rely on What They Hear to Know What They’re Saying”

  1. I aggree with what the writer says, people respond better to what they hear than to what they read. Often times when I study I memorize better what I atter with my mouth than what I just scan or read. What we hear will determine our response.

  2. It is quite amazing on how our brains work.I never thought that speech can be manipulated . This actually makes sense because I also remember something better if I say it out loud .This helps when having to study difficult concepts.

  3. This was a very interesting reading. I watched brain games a few times and saw how our brains can be manipulated, but I never thought that our speech can be manipulated to. The research that has been done on this aspects is something that is so part of our daily lives that we does not see how our speech are being manipulated on a daily basis. You can plan out exactly what you want to say to someone, but when it comes to that, it never comes out the way you have planned it. A persons reactions on what you say and their response, play a role in what you are going to say next. So I fully agree with what the author has been saying in this post.

  4. This research shows that the brain responds better to what we hear than to what we see.It is much more easier for the brain to memorize what we read out loud than reading without saying what is red. That’s why we need to hear what we say to know what we are saying.

  5. One can just imagine what it would be like if people were just saying things without thinking them over and over again. Well we are so fortunate to have the ability to get an idea of what we want to say before we say it. For instance in a play, we get scripts to memorize what is written on the script and we do just that but when it comes to having to perform, we really lose some of the words but because of our ability we don’t and we really kill the play.

    Yes sometimes we really rely on what it has been said or what we have heard before, these only helps in situations where we have to like respond to something we hear now. For instance, if you are asked a question in a class you would use some of the things that you have heard from the previous student.

  6. It is incredible to see how people react to the Stroop test and that they actually think they said the words themselves even though they did not. I tested myself on the various colored words test and I had to concentrate really hard to get it right. But to me it just shows how complex our brains are and how our brains must constantly take in a vast amount of stimulus from the outside world and interpret it. I think the human brain is constantly taking shortcuts and that is why we aren’t always in control of our own sayings and doings. I think the further research in this field could be of great benefit to us as people, since we communicate on a daily-bases.

  7. This is really interesting. Although i think it depends mostly on your concentration levels. It becomes so much easier to remember what you said minutes ago when nothing between those two time intervals nothing interrupted you, either additional information or totally something different. it is true that we know what to say even before we say it, it has to do with our reflex action, but it becomes acute when we think of something whereas we are saying another. Furthermore, trying to formulate our thoughts before we issuing an immediate warning would make communication undesirable and communication would be slowed if we were unable to respond flowingly in conversations with other people.

  8. Are the findings of the research going to be the same if the stoop test were to be conducted with deaf people? I think the research has loopholes because it does not take into consideration the average reaction time of a human being and that it can differ for genetic reasons amongst others

  9. this article was of great interest to me. It is fascinating to learn how the human mind works and how easily it can be “manipulated”. I agree with Shivaar Chuturgoon, in saying that people do need to have more trust in themselves about what they say. Everything people hear is not always correct and is often used against them. This investigation could seem to prove a lot about propaganda and how people would rather believe in something heard rather than to have faith in themselves and their own beliefs. If this can be further investigated, perhaps a way could be found in order for people to have more “self control”over what the have said and heard and putting the two together.

  10. What an interesting article. It shows how easily the human mind can be influenced by external forces. I fully agree with the content of the article and have experienced some of the phenomena mentioned myself. As I was reading the article I was listening to the little voice inside my head and used it to figure out the meaning of the words I read. I also agree that we use context to decipher meaning. A word can have a whole other meaning out of context. Have you ever heard of the phrase ” think before you speak ” ? I think based on the findings in this article, we should do a lot more than think. We should interpret the context as well as our surroundings, which include the body language of the other person and what they are saying, to obtain the meaning of what we are about to say.

  11. This article is fascinating. Everyone likes to believe that they are in complete control of their actions, this, however, is not the case. Many of our actions are influenced by our subconscious, previous experiences and events that are occurring around us at the time that we are attempting to perform a specific task. Thus it makes perfect sense that auditory feedback plays a role in assisting us to understand the meaning of the words we are speaking. The fact that we listen to ourselves to help understand what we are saying also makes perfect sense. It also explains why we are often able to determine other people’s emotions that are expressed as a result of our words. It also explains why conversations in everyday life are successful because we are able to determine meanings of words based on the feedback we receive from previously spoken words and from information that we drawn in from the environment around us.

  12. To most of us speech and everyday conversation seems utterly effortless. A continuous string of words laced together as information is received based on what has been said previously and predicting what may be said next.

    The study conducted, by researchers at Lund University, however shows that seemingly simple task consists of more than we ever though. This study has shown clearly that we rely predominantly on what we hear ourselves as we say it. If you think about it logically it makes complete sense. If you did not listen to what you where saying as you said it there would be no way of checking if what we where saying actually made sense as we formulated it in our minds seconds before.

    This study however only takes one aspect of conversation into consideration. If we are to fully understand the way we communicate we need to consider all the possible aspects, such as: body language, speech and back round.

  13. I also agree with the article because as u14125316 said alot of us experience the same that she experienced while she was texting and talking to the friend at the same time. i think the human brain is more vulnerable to audio stumuli rather than visual stimuli. when we hear things it is easy to remember them unlike when we have to read them… a typical example is that fact that we remember song lyrics more than work from the textbook, simply because we hear songs and therefore they get stored in our long term memory unlike words from the textbooks that we actually have to read.

  14. Yes i turn to agree with the findings that people turn to rely on what they hear to what what they are saying as i have always believed that we as people develop our language structure and vocabulary through observations and studying the way other people express them selves.
    But somehow i turn to believe that the short term brain and the long long term brain play a huge role in what we say,remember and pronunciation of words, in respect to the test done on the participants.

    In most cases the long term memory that can store a large amount of information at a slow pace is stronger than the short term memory which can store little amount of information very quickly and making the information quick to access, so in the case of the participants not recognizing what they had recently uttered we can deduce that their short term memory is much weaker than that of the one third of participants whom were able to recognize what they heard uttered.

    So in conclusion we can say that yes people may depend on what they hear to what they are going to say but the strength of the short term memory over the long term memory also plays a role.

  15. What is being said in this article makes so much sense. This is most probably why we tend to peak louder when our ears are blocked or when there is a large noise in the room- so that we can hear ourselves speak. By hearing what we say, it is a way of justifying our speech.

  16. wow.interesting.i totally agree with the article. it is actually a i was with my friend at the mall.while we were walking and talking,i was also on my cellphone trying to reply to my whats-app messages. i went to one of my contacts and actually typed a wrong reply. i wrote exactly what my friend was telling me. i know i am not the only one who experiences this. only a few people are able to talk and the same time chat on their cellphones.

  17. I had always thought that I was in full control of my actions, until I started finding out more about the subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind will record every detail you’ve ever heard, seen or experienced, but the conscious mind has no direct access to the subconscious. This may be the reason why the manipulated feedback was mistaken to be self-produced, as it was picked up and stored in the brain.

    Subconscious manipulation is nothing new. It has been used in propaganda (e.g. through powerful speeches in which key phrases are emphasized and ideas are implanted in people’s minds) and subliminal messaging (e.g. through the flashing of subtle images or sounds that may go unnoticed). It encourages people to take particular action, under the misconception that they are acting out of free will. Subjects are unaware of any form of manipulation.

    Although the mind is very powerful, it may also be vulnerable to external influences. As Shivaar stated, people are distracted by their surroundings. It would be interesting to study how one’s speech is altered while speaking by the body language of the people they’re addressing (What emotions do they portray?) and other distractions in the environment.

  18. One deduction i have maid is that, according to the stroop test, the human brain is more reliant or responsive to audial stimuli than visual stimuli

  19. These findings are quite alarming because people are beginning to accept what they are told rather than trying to establish the truth about the matter. The mere fact that the participants were not able to recognize what they had uttered a few moments earlier further supports this view.

    I believe that this lack of self trust stems from the fact that we believe that those around us always know better due to the easy accessibility to numerous sources of information. People are also becoming more distracted by their surroundings and as a result are paying less attention to their actions. This is evident from the fact that many participants were unable to recall what they had said just a few moments earlier. This opens the door to many forms of manipulation that can be performed. People should learn to trust themselves more and pay more attention to what they are saying and doing in order to be more self-assured and self confident.

    This is indeed an intriguing field of study and I’m looking forward to reading about more research that is carried out in this field.

  20. This finding is quite contradictory to what people might think would be the effect of an increases coffee intake. I would like to know what happens on a particulate level. How does coffee decrease the risk of diabetes? Would it be advisable to suggest coffee as a way to prevent diabetes to people running a risk of contracting diabetes? If there is some chemical substance in the coffee itself that lowers the risk of becoming a diabetic, would it be possible to extract that substance and concentrate it as a substance for prevention? I do hope someone is doing further research and testing on this subject, as it might lead to a better insight of the disease.


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