Remember that famous line in the movie Jerry Maguire where Renee Zellweger says to Tom Cruise, "You had me at 'hello' "? Well it turns out there is some scientific evidence to back this up. People use voices to instantly judge people, researchers say.
"From the first word you hear a person speak, you start to form this impression of the person's personality, says Phil McAleer, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, who led the study.
In his experiment, McAleer recorded 64 people, men and women, from Glasgow, reading a paragraph that included the word "hello." He then extracted all the hellos and got 320 participants to listen to the different voices and rate them on 10 different personality traits, such as trustworthiness, aggressiveness, confidence, dominance and warmth.
What he found was that the participants largely agreed on which voice matched which personality trait. One male voice was overwhelmingly voted the least trustworthy, "the sort of guy you'd want to avoid," McAleer says. The pitch of the untrustworthy voice was much lower than the male deemed most trustworthy. McAleer says this is probably because a higher pitched male voice is closer to the natural pitch of a female, making the men sound less aggressive and friendlier than the lower male voices.
What makes females sound more trustworthy is whether their voices rise or fall at the end of the word, says McAleer. "Probably the trustworthy female, when she drops her voice at the end, is showing a degree of certainty and so can be trusted."
McAleer says it doesn't really matter whether the ratings of personality accurately reflect a speaker's true personality. What matters, he contends, is that there was so much agreement on the traits.
"What we find is that they all seem to perceive that one voice is the most trustworthy and another voice is the least trustworthy," he says. And the same is true of all the other personality traits that were tested.
In less than a second, the time it takes to say "hello," we make a snap judgment about someone's personality, says Jody Kreiman, a UCLA researcher who studies how we perceive voice. On hearing just a brief utterance, we decide whether to approach the person or to avoid them. Such rapid appraisals, she says, have a long evolutionary history. It's a brain process found in all mammals.
"Things that are important for behavior and for survival tend to happen pretty fast," Kreiman says. "You don't have a huge amount of time. It has to be a simple system of communication."
And it doesn't get much simpler than a simple "hello," rapidly communicating friend or foe — a phenomenon that Phil McAleer has now dubbed "the Jerry Maguire effect." Underscoring the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
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Today in Your Health: How learning to quilt could help your brain. First, a scientific study reveals how we use voices to instantly judge personality. Michelle Trudeau reports on scientists in Scotland who have been studying the power of the first impressions.
MICHELLE TRUDEAU, BYLINE: Remember that famous line from the movie Jerry Maguire where Renee Zellweger says to Tom Cruise...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JERRY MAGUIRE")
RENEE ZELLWEGER: (as Dorothy Boyd) You had me at hello, you had me at hello.
TRUDEAU: Turns out there's some scientific evidence backing this up, according to psychologist Phil McAleer at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
PHIL MCALEER: From that first word you hear a person speak...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hello.
MCALEER: ....you start to form this impression of the person's personality.
TRUDEAU: To explore this, McAleer recorded 64 people - men and women from Glasgow - reading a paragraph in which the word hello occurred. He then extracted all the hellos, got 300 participants to listen to the different hellos and to rate them...
MCALEER: On one of 10 different personality traits.
TRUDEAU: Such as trustworthiness, aggressiveness...
MCALEER: Confidence, dominance, warmth.
TRUDEAU: Basically, asking each participant...
MCALEER: What is your first impression of a person from the moment you hear them speak?
TRUDEAU: Here are a couple of examples of what the participants listened to and rated.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello.
MCALEER: That voice for our participants was rated the most trustworthy male voice in the study.
TRUDEAU: Versus this voice.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hello.
MCALEER: This speaker was rated the most untrustworthy male.
The sort of guy you'd want to avoid or you wouldn't really want to talk to on the phone.
TRUDEAU: McAleer says if you compare these two examples...
MCALEER: There's a real change in the pitch of the two voices. The trustworthy male says hello really quite high-pitched, like: hello. Whereas, the untrustworthy guy kind of says it the more like: hello.
TRUDEAU: Likewise for the female voices.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hello.
TRUDEAU: That female voice was rated the most dominant personality.
MCALEER: So the dominant female, you can hear in her voice, again, it sounds like the pitch is lower. So it sounds like she's speaking in a bit more of a deeper voice.
TRUDEAU: Compared with the voice of the woman who was rated the least dominant.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Non-dominant female voice: hello.
MCALEER: In the non-dominant female that you just played there, it doesn't have that strength in the voice anymore.
TRUDEAU: Now, McAleer says it doesn't really matter whether the ratings of personality accurately reflect a speaker's true personality. What matters, he contends, is that most participants rated the voices the same way.
MCALEER: So we've asked 300 different people who don't know each other to rate 64 voices that they've never heard before. And from that, what we find is that they all seem to perceive that that voice is the most trustworthy and another voice is the least trustworthy.
TRUDEAU: And for the other personality traits - such as dominance, warmth, confidence.
MCALEER: They rate in a very similar fashion as well.
TRUDEAU: In less than a second, we make a snap judgment about someone's personality, says Jody Kreiman, a UCLA researcher who studies how we perceive different voices. Hearing just a brief utterance, we decide whether to approach the person or to avoid them. Such rapid appraisals, she adds, have a long evolutionary history. It's a brain process found in all mammals
JODY KREIMAN: So, you know, biological things, things that are important for behavior and for survival, tend to happen pretty fast. You don't have a huge amount of time. It has to be a simple system of communication.
TRUDEAU: And it doesn't get much simpler than a simple hello - rapidly communicating friend or foe - a phenomenon that Phil McAleer has now dubbed the Jerry Maguire Effect. Underscoring the old adage: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.
INSKEEP: Hello. If you like to try rating the hellos yourself go to our website, npr.org Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.