We all know that “you are what you eat,” but do you also sound like what you hear? Well, you’ve heard it here first: a new two-part study finds that people are prone to imitating the speech that they hear. While it may not be too surprising to find out you talk like your friends, your speech also changes to mimic the accent of strangers.
Researchers from the University of California, Riverside decided to put this theory to the test. For their first experiment, these experts chose two graduate students with no discernible speech impediments or accents — one male and one female — to serve as the models and read a list of 74 words, which was video and audio recorded. Afterward, 16 subjects of equal gender distribution were individually given the same list of 74 words, which they read aloud. Next, the subjects listened to the recordings of their same-sexed graduate student and then repeated the words after they heard them. Following this task, the subjects watched silent video footage of the same grad student and had to lip-read the word and then say the word aloud. At no point were the subjects told to mimic the words in any fashion, only to say them back, so all imitations were performed unconsciously by the subjects themselves.
With all three sets of the subjects’ words recorded, the researchers turned to 32 undergraduate students to be the raters. These raters listened to the grad students’ original recordings of the words, then decided which of the subjects’ words sounded most like the original. Compared to the first word they spoke without a model, the raters found that the subjects’ words sounded more like the models. The influence was perceivable, even though the subjects were unaware of such persuasion.
Hoping to push their data further, the researchers conducted a second experiment with the same audio and video they had already collected, but using new raters. This time, the raters watched silent video of the grad students and then said which of the three of the subjects’ words matched best. Once again, the raters most often selected the words that were recorded after repeating a model. Furthermore, it found that women align their speech to one another at slightly higher rates than men.
If you’ve ever wondered why your friends all start to sound the same, it is no coincidence — it is human nature! Though the research demonstrates speech alignment, the UCR professors wish to stress that while it may “appear rapid, unconscious, and inadvertent, it would be wrong to consider alignment as a reflexive, direct, or automatic phenomenon.”