Trust in science, news and experts is influenced by sound quality

April 17, 2018, University of Southern California
Credit: Petr Kratochvil/Public Domain

"Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see," Edgar Allen Poe once wrote.

Maybe he just had a bad phone connection.

A new study by USC and The Australian National University shows that audio influences whether people believe what they hear—and whether they trust the source of information.

The findings are significant amid the recent rise of fake news and public distrust in science, said Norbert Schwarz, a co-director of the Mind & Society Center at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"When you make it difficult for people to process information, it becomes less credible," Schwarz said.

The study was published on March 20 in the journal Science Communication.

Can you hear me now?

Schwarz and co-author Eryn Newman conducted two experiments—one in which they used two YouTube conference videos and a second with NPR Science Friday interviews with scientists.

For the first study, the scientists selected two YouTube conference talk videos about engineering and physics to show to 97 participants. Using iMovie, the scientists altered the of the recordings and trimmed them to 2- or 3-minute segments.

Then, they showed one with good sound quality and the other with poor sound. Afterward, the participants were asked to rate the talks, from 1-5, worst to best on questions about the talk and the speaker.

"When the video was difficult to hear, viewers thought the talk was worse, the speaker less intelligent and less likeable and the research less important," the scientists wrote.

For the second experiment with 99 other participants, the scientists altered the sound quality of two NPR Science Friday interviews, one with a geneticist and another with a physicist, and shortened the recordings to 2-3 minutes.

"As soon as we reduced the audio quality, all of a sudden, the scientists and their research lost credibility," Newman said.

Mental stumbles create distrust

The study is the latest to examine the issue of fluency - the ease with which something is processed - and how it can influence people's judgments about information and their sources.

Schwarz and his colleagues have found that anytime something is difficult to process, people become distrustful. One study that he published last year showed that people are more likely to distrust eBay sellers with difficult-to-pronounce names. One of his earlier studies revealed that people rated exercise plans as easier to do when the instructions were published in Arial font rather than Brush or Mistral fonts.

Newman, a former research associate of the Mind & Society Center at USC Dornsife College, has also found in her work that people are more likely to believe a claim when it appears with a photo—even if the image is unrelated to the claim.

"Fluency is associated with no logical problems and high familiarity," Schwarz said. "It becomes a shortcut for evaluating important things like: Do I know this guy? Have I heard this before? Anything that makes you stumble, makes the information seem less true."

Schwarz said he got the idea for the study after giving a presentation that was video recorded.

"If I search for myself on Google, I find tons of video of myself giving talks, and some are poor quality," Schwarz said. "The video camera is too far or there is no mic and it really looks terrible."

The findings can apply to countless situations in business, such as teleconference and videoconference calls, and job interviews over the phone, Schwarz said.

Schwarz and Newman offered this takeaway from their study: Next time you are recorded, make sure you have good sound quality, they wrote. Your credibility depends on it.

Explore further: What makes someone believe or reject information?

More information: Eryn J. Newman et al, Good Sound, Good Research: How Audio Quality Influences Perceptions of the Research and Researcher, Science Communication (2018). DOI: 10.1177/1075547018759345

Related Stories

The power of expectations

May 13, 2016

Expectations have a lot of power over people as is evidenced by the placebo effect: Patients get pills that have no active ingredient. But the patients are not aware of that. Firmly believing that they are taking an effective ...

Cutting off cervical cancer's fuel supply stymies tumors

February 14, 2018

Cancer therapies have improved—in some cases dramatically—over the past two decades, but treatment for cervical cancer has remained largely unchanged. All patients receive radiation and chemotherapy, yet despite the aggressive ...

Recommended for you

Oldest-known aquatic reptiles probably spent time on land

September 19, 2018

The oldest known aquatic reptiles, the mesosaurs, probably spent part of their life on land, reveals a new study published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. The fossilized bones of adult Mesosaurus share similarities ...

Research shows SE Asian population boom 4,000 years ago

September 19, 2018

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) have uncovered a previously unconfirmed population boom across South East Asia that occurred 4,000 years ago, thanks to a new method for measuring prehistoric population ...

Searching for new bridge forms that can span further

September 19, 2018

Newly identified bridge forms could enable significantly longer bridge spans to be achieved in the future, potentially making a crossing over the Strait of Gibraltar, from the Iberian Peninsula to Morocco, feasible.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.