Subconsciously, we echo the speech of superiors

Apr 24, 2012 By Bill Steele

(Phys.org) -- Want to know who holds the power? Just listen carefully, preferably with a little help from a computer. Research at Cornell shows that people speaking to someone of perceived superior status often unconsciously echo the linguistic style of that person. The effect is usually not noticed by humans but shows up in a computer analysis of large amounts of text. The linguistic clues were found in discussions in which the outcome matters to the speaker.

The rule seems to apply across many domains of life. The researchers found it in Internet discussion and in arguments before the Supreme Court. In the latter case, also offers clues to which justices may favor one side or the other in a case.

Graduate student and lead author Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil presented the research at the World Wide Web Conference April 16-20 in Lyon, France. Co-authors are Jon Kleinberg '93, the Tisch University Professor of computer science; Lillian Lee '93, professor of computer science; and Yahoo! researcher Bo Pang, Ph.D. '06.

While commonly study people in small groups, the were able to find subtle effects because they worked with very large collections of text -- 240,000 conversations among Wikipedia editors and 50,389 verbal exchanges from 204 cases argued before the Supreme Court.

In conversation with someone more powerful, the analysis shows, a speaker tends to coordinate with the other person's use of "function words": articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, frequently used adverbs ("very," "just," "often"), pronouns, prepositions and quantifiers ("all," "some," "many"). This means that the effects are independent of the topic and would show up even in text that has been censored to hide or disguise the subject matter, the researchers say.

As a further test, the researchers trained a computer to measure language coordination on Wikipedia and then fed it text from Supreme Court arguments and vice versa. They got the same results either way, confirming that the effect is independent of the situation.

On Wikipedia talk pages, where writers and editors discuss their articles, status is clearly defined, with some editors identified as "admins," who have more authority over what goes into an article. The researchers found that when editors were promoted to an admin position, others coordinated language to them more after the promotion. In turn, the newly promoted administrators coordinated their language less with the rank and file, but usually only after about two months of adjustment to their new status.

In the Supreme Court, as expected, lawyers coordinate their speech to justices. But, say the researchers, there is another factor besides formal status that confers power: dependence. Speakers coordinate their speech with those who can do something for them. Lawyers generally go before the with an idea of which justices will be opposed to their cause, and the analysis showed that lawyers coordinated their speech more with justices who opposed them (as confirmed by the final vote). At the same time, opposing justices coordinated less with those lawyers.

As a sidelight, the analysis showed that female lawyers coordinated their speech with justices more than male lawyers, and justices coordinated less with female lawyers. The researchers caution that this result may be influenced by other gender differences in communication style.

The researchers see applications of this type of analysis in studying the sociology of online groups, which previously has focused on structural features such as who talks to whom. "It is exciting to contemplate extending the range of social properties that can be analyzed via text," they concluded.

The research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation, Google and Yahoo!

Explore further: Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Court takes health care case behind closed doors

Mar 29, 2012

(AP) -- The survival of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul rests with a Supreme Court seemingly split over ideology and, more particularly, in the hands of two Republican-appointed justices.

US Supreme Court rejects Internet speech cases

Jan 17, 2012

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take two cases involving three separate incidents involving free speech protection for public school students on the Internet.

Final day of Supreme Court health law hearings

Mar 28, 2012

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on whether President Barack Obama's landmark health care law should be struck down if its key requirement that all Americans buy insurance is declared unconstitutional.

Scalia's pro-tobacco order tossed by high court

Jun 30, 2011

(AP) -- Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia exercised a rarely used power last fall to let Philip Morris USA and three other big tobacco companies delay making multimillion-dollar payments for a program ...

Obama asks Supreme Court to rule on health care

Sep 28, 2011

President Barack Obama's administration Wednesday asked the US Supreme Court to uphold his historic health care law, likely sparking an explosive legal showdown in the heat of the 2012 election.

Recommended for you

Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

Aug 29, 2014

One wish many workers may have this Labor Day is for more control and predictability of their work schedules. A new report finds that unpredictability is widespread in many workers' schedules—one reason ...

Girls got game

Aug 29, 2014

Debi Taylor has worked in everything from construction development to IT, and is well and truly socialised into male-dominated workplaces. So when she found herself the only female in her game development ...

Computer games give a boost to English

Aug 28, 2014

If you want to make a mark in the world of computer games you had better have a good English vocabulary. It has now also been scientifically proven that someone who is good at computer games has a larger ...

Saddam Hussein—a sincere dictator?

Aug 28, 2014

Are political speeches manipulative and strategic? They could be – when politicians say one thing in public, and privately believe something else, political scientists say. Saddam Hussein's legacy of recording private discussions ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Squirrel
1 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2012
I echoi the style of a more powerful individual as a conscious strategy. It is well known that to change someone's opinion you use their type of language. By definition, an inferior individual has fewer means to change the opinions of a more powerful individual than "gaming" in this way how they use language. I suggest what the researchers found is not subconscious but smart and intentional.
Husky
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
just do it mkay