You had me at hello

By Lauren Hoskin

Have you ever disliked someone instantly, even though they’ve barely finished their sentence? Or maybe you thought someone was brilliant from the moment they said hello. New research may be able to shed light on how we make these instantaneous judgements.

A team of scientists from the University of Glasgow have found that the simple word ‘hello’ can carry enough information for us to make rapid conclusions about the person speaking. Assumptions were made on a whole range of personality traits, including confidence, trustworthiness and likeability.

The team took recordings of speech from 64 volunteers and selected just the word ‘hello’ from each extract to analyse. All volunteers had been born and raised in Scotland in order to prevent any effects of accent prejudice. They then gave all 64 clips to a different group of 320 students to listen to and assess.

Each participant rated the hello’s on a different personality trait out of a possible ten. The ten traits were aggressiveness, attractiveness, competence, confidence, dominance, femininity, likeability, masculinity, trustworthiness and warmth.

Louis Stulberg looks on as Hubert H. Humphrey gives a speech during his November 15, 1968 campaign

Results showed that for the female voices, perceived attractiveness correlated with traits such as likeability, warmth and trust.  Conversely for the male voices, the students tended to group perceived attractiveness with perceived dominance.

Female voices were deemed to be more trustworthy and likeable if they raised the pitch between the first and second syllable of the word, known as rising intonation. Likewise, males were thought to be friendlier and more trustworthy if their pitch was higher and therefore closer to a female’s, indicating a female-friendliness stereotype.

Females with a higher pitched voice and males with a lower pitched voice were deemed to be more dominant. These findings are consistent with other research that has shown that people associate lower pitch for males with increased strength and height. Whilst this is not necessarily the case for actual height and strength it’s possible that it could be reflected on a personality level.

The results were consistent between the participants and with other studies, including those that tested for people’s reactions to much longer extracts of speech. They corroborated the idea that humans naturally over-generalise people’s personalities based on momentary states. For example, if someone frowns the first time you meet them, you might instantly think they’re an angry person. This could be based on an evolutionary pressure to be able to make rapid judgements on someone’s intent to know whether to avoid or approach them.

Dr Phil McAleer of the University of Glasgow, lead author of the study, says “The main questions at the moment are how our perception of a speaker’s personality changes with a prolonged dialogue, and the effect this has on our interactions. For instance, do we fully engage with certain voices and pull away from others?

“Practical applications of the work include things like improving communication for the millions of people worldwide that use synthetic voices. We could potentially begin to add appropriate personalities for these users.”

This kind of research could also be useful in directing people to find the necessary pitch and intonation to achieve the desired effect. A politician could use this to come across as incredibly trustworthy the moment they say ‘hello’ if they get their pitch right. And perhaps love at first sight (or speech) isn’t a myth after all!