The Voice of a Cheater

How effective are verbal cues in exposing our emotions and character?

Throughout this blog, we have dwelled extensively on deception detection but have also focused almost exclusively on nonverbal cues. However, a new study in the journal of Evolutionary Psychology, subtle verbal cues can reveal a wealth of detail about a stranger, even including past infidelity!

In an effort to see how revealing our voices were, Dr. Susan Hughes of Albright College procured a series of audio clips of different people simply counting from one to ten. Half of the speakers had elsewhere admitted to having cheated on a romantic partner in the past, while half had not.

Then, Dr. Hughes asked a series of participants to listen to various audio clips, asking them to extrapolate what they could from just the sound of the voices. These participants were given no outside details or context besides the mundane numerical recitation.

Amazingly, when asked to rank the speakers’ likelihood to cheat, the participants’ rankings matched closely with whether the speaker had a history of infidelity!

These results do have some precedent. Past research has found that verbal cues can reveal a great deal of accurate information, including the speaker’s sex, age, race, height, weight, and even social status. Perhaps most relevantly, previous studies found links between one’s voice and the emotional states beyond deception and past sexual activity.

However, despite the groundbreaking nature of Dr. Hughes’ research, there are still many unanswered questions. For example, she declined to offer a comprehensive explanation for how this is possible!

Dr. Hughes attempted to test whether the pitch of the voice had any effect on participant evaluations. She adjusted the pitch in many of the audio clips, so that the same voice was presented with a higher or lower pitch. This had very little effect, except that men tended to associate infidelity with low pitches in female voices.

This was surprising, as previous research found that pitch does impact listener judgments. Still, while pitch has some role, it “does not represent the entire picture,” as the authors wrote. Instead, “other vocal cues such as clarity of articulation may have also contributed to perceptions of infidelity.”

Perhaps this study asks more questions than it answers, but it brings the verbal aspect of deception detection into a new light.

While we wait for more information, it might be helpful to work on strengthening your ability to detect lies face to face. Similarly, you can read some previous blogs about using microexpressions to tell when you are being lied to here and here!

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