Determining Mental State from Tone of Voice Part 1

In a recent study done by the University of Arizona, researchers discovered that just 30 seconds of speaking with a complete stranger could reveal how well they were coping with their emotions.

The study entitled “Thin-Slicing Divorce: Thirty Seconds of Information Predict Changes in Psychological Adjustment Over 90 Days” was recently published in The Journal of Psychological Science.

In this study, conducted by Ashley Mason, David Sbarra and Matthias R. Mehl, men and women who had recently experienced a romantic separation were asked to complete questionnaires and provide audio recordings on their feelings towards their former partners and relationships. The first 30 seconds were saved as sound files and written transcriptions. The subjects were asked to repeat this process three months later.

Students participating in the study were divided into two groups: one only read the transcripts, and the other only listened to the recordings. Neither of the groups had any visual contact with the subjects. Each group was asked to judge the subjects’ ability to control their emotions, cope with their separations and the stress of their post-separation life, and their thoughts about the relationship. Both groups agreed with the subjects’ assessments of their separations. However, the students that had listened to the sound clips were better able to predict what the subjects would say about their psychological adjustments later on.

Ashley Mason, the University of Arizona doctoral student who conducted this study, states that “it’s important to know that it is not about what people are saying, it’s how they’re saying it that is tipping us off to how they’re doing, and more importantly, how they’re going to do.”

Dr. Bella DePaulo, leading deception expert, analyzed the study in a recent article she wrote for Psychology Today. “The study also underscores something I learned from my studies of deception: tone of voice matters,” she says. “Sometimes, what you can learn from a person from tuning in to their tone of voice is more than you can tell from just having access to their words (as in an email) or from watching a silent video clip in which you can see all of their facial expressions and body movements.” She explains that people who are perceived as the least stressed will also generally describe themselves as the least stressed, and will still hold to that statement three months later.

Do you think a 30 second sound bite is enough to judge someone’s current emotional state, as well as predict their future feelings? Or do you think that body language and facial expressions are necessary in order to do so?

One response to “Determining Mental State from Tone of Voice Part 1”

  1. Keith D. says:

    “Better able to predict” is a far cry from say, twice as accurate. Without reading the study (or the linked articles I admit), I don’t know what the actual numbers are from this study. Since the devil is in the details, I have no way to judge how likely this is to be true. But from my own experience, I think it sounds solid. You can tell an amazing amount about a person’s emotional state from their tone of voice. What it comes down to is how useful it is, how accurate it is, and how effective it is compared to other means of observation. Is it good enough to use in some situations? I think it is. Is it better than body language and facial expressions? That’s harder to quantify without hard research. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But tone of voice can be learned and controlled, and probably more easily than facial expressions and body language since what you’re hearing is so much more subjective than what you can see visually and since it’s easier to focus on and conceal.

    I think what this comes down to is two-fold. The first being a so-called “80-20 rule” by which (for illustrative purposes) 80% of results can be obtained through 20% of effort, while the remaining 20% of results require the remaining 80% of effort to achieve. So tone of voice may be able to produce that 80% result by itself, because it’s a 20% channel of effort (compared to adding statement analysis, body language, facial expressions of emotion etc.), but to get closer to that 100% of results would require adding in the statement analysis, body language, facial expressions and so forth.

    The second being what the East Germans encountered with the Stasi, wherein they had compiled such vast amounts of information about their “persons of interest” that they were actually crippled by the sheer volume of information, and it became ineffective as intelligence. This would be backed up to some degree with Dr. DePaulo’s statement in which what you can learn from a person’s tone of voice can be more than from their words alone, or from a silent video clip in which you can observe their facial expressions and body movements.

    It comes down to information overload. Nobody can focus on all of these different channels of communication simultaneously, and that’s why many people find it useful to watch video clips of a person with the audio turned off, as well as turned on. This allows the observer to hone in to fewer channels at once, increasing the amount of useful information they can take in from that channel. Then, after observing all the available channels, notes from each can be compared to reach a more definitive conclusion.

    The results are going to vary depending on the observer, as each person may have a particular strength or affinity to certain channels of information over others, and therefor a varying efficacy in each. But unless a person is particularly bad in one or more of the available channels, it stands to reason that the results would probably be improved by using more than just one channel to reach a conclusion. And yet I think there will be situations in which using just one channel, such as tone of voice, will produce “good enough” results for a given situation.

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