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As social creatures, we tend to mimic each other’s posture, laughter, and other behaviors, including how we speak. Now a new study shows that people with similar views tend to more closely mirror, or align, each other’s speech patterns. In addition, people who are better at compromising align more closely.

“Few people are aware that they alter their word pronunciation, speech rate, and even the structure of their sentences during conversation,” explained Florian Jaeger, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and coauthor of the study recently published in Language Variation and Change. “What we have found is that the degree to which speakers align is socially mediated.”

“Our social judgments about others and our general attitude toward conflict are affecting even the most automatic and subconscious aspects of how we express ourselves with language,” said lead-author Kodi Weatherholtz, a post-doctoral researcher in Jaeger’s lab.

drawing of female waitress pointing pointing to her order pad, and a priest
Cartoon image that participants described during the second phase of the experiment.

To test the social effects of how greatly we mimic each other’s speech patterns, the researchers devised an experiment in which participants first listened to ideologically charged messages with a set sentence structure. After listening to the diatribes they were asked to describe some simple illustrations showing characters performing simple actions, such as a waitress giving a banana to a monk.

Most participants subconsciously aligned their descriptions with the sentence structure presented in the listening phase of the experiment. But, how closely the participants aligned with the speaker varied based on how much they agreed with the speaker’s views (as assessed in a post-experimental interview). Those who shared views with the speaker altered their speech to more closely match the sentence pattern used by the speaker.

During the experiment, participants heard phrases like “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers.” Others heard the same ideologically loaded sentiment expressed with a different sentence structure: “Congress is giving welfare moochers too much money.” (Notice the order of the phrases “too much money”—which refers to the thing being given—and “welfare moochers”—the recipient.)

Those who heard the first version, “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers” (the recipient is mentioned after the thing being given), for example, were more likely to describe a picture as “The waitress is giving a banana to the monk” rather than “The waitress is giving the monk a banana” when they agreed with the speaker’s views.

When participants disagreed with the opinion expressed by the speaker, they aligned less or not at all. Additionally, participants who described themselves as compromising in conflict situations, showed more linguistic alignment with the speaker.

One of the researchers, Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, an associate professor of linguistics at Ohio State University, pointed out that testing for political influences on syntactic alignment might be interesting in its own right, but the purpose in this experiment was to influence social similarity and establish a situation in which participants were ideologically invested.

One reason people tend to align certain speech patterns is because it facilitates communication, Jaeger said. When we align how we talk, then sounds, words, and sentence structures become more predictable,

In addition to this well-known psychological function, the study’s findings provide evidence that speech alignment serves a social function. Similarity is a powerful social force, Jaeger explained. In short, we tend to like people who share certain characteristics with us. Thus, speaking in a way that is more or less similar to others can be a subtle means of influencing liking, trust, and other interpersonal emotions.

The findings shed new light on the relationship between human psychology and social behavior, Jaeger said. They suggest that social factors “piggy back” on the subconscious process—which is primary—and can boost the degree of alignment. “The extent to which we align is moderated by the attitudes we have towards our conversation partner,” added Weatherholtz.

These two traditions—the psychological and the social—”are not necessarily competing; they can be complementary,” said Jaeger. “What’s been lacking in the research is a way to talk to both communities and bring them together.”

A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to Westherholtz, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship to Jaeger, and the National Science Foundation supported the study.

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