Throughout today, you will make countless choices, some inconsequential and others significant. Swedish researchers who discovered that people frequently fail to notice mismatches between what they choose and what they get — you select Garamond, say, as your email font but get Times New Roman instead — wanted to explore whether the same might be true for speech. Would you recognize when the words you just said have been changed? In fact, participants in a new series of experiments did not notice differences between what they said and what they heard often enough for the researchers to conclude that generally, people listen to their own voices to help them understand not only what they just said but also what they mean.

“These findings suggest that the meaning of an utterance is not entirely internal to the speaker, but that it is also determined by the feedback we receive from our utterances, and from the inferences we draw from the wider conversational context,” said Dr. Andreas Lind, a cognitive scientist at Lund University. The published research appears online in Psychological Science.

Cosmetic Adjustment

Most people understand that any image or recording can easily and in some cases instantly be changed through various techniques, including Autotone, Photoshop, or simple editing. Many singers routinely use Auto-Tone, an audio processor that alters pitch, to transform the sound of their voices, while magazines commonly use Photoshop or similar programs to adjust not only the intensity of color in a celebrity photograph, but also to make someone appear considerably less fat or less haggard. Truth is, voice, photographs, and film and video recordings are frequently manipulated using common and widely available editing techniques. However, many people don't always factor this into their understanding of the media, especially when a powerful appearance has been created, one that may be more seductive than the simple truth.

What would happen, though, if it was your image or voice that is reflected back at you in a way that has been subtly changed? Would you even notice?

Well, a team of Lund University researchers who have been conducting experiments using a technique they refer to as choice blindness have answered this question.

Essentially, then, participants in their many experiments are fooled into thinking something other than the truth as a way for researchers to learn about decision-making. And in their most recent experiment, the team of researchers used the choice blind technique to explore these questions: “What would it be like if we said one thing, and heard ourselves saying something else? Would we notice something was wrong? Or would we believe we said the thing we heard?”

To explore these matters, the team designed a simple-seeming but elaborate experiment. Wearing headphones, participants performed a computerized task and during the early part of the task, the researchers secretly recorded their words. Next, the researchers requested the participants answer questions with certain set phrases, while blocking the actual feedback of participants' voices in their headphones. As each participants answered the questions, the researchers played back the participant’s own voice, except in each case, a single word had been swapped for one they had previously said. For instance, while saying, “The dress is green,” participants heard their own voices say, “The dress is gray.”

What did they researchers discover? When the playback was timed well enough, more than two thirds of the manipulations went undetected by the participants in the study. “Crucially, in a large proportion of the non-detected manipulated trials, the inserted words were experienced as self-produced by the participants,” wrote the participants. Specifically, in 85 percent of all non-detected exchanges, the participants believed they themselves had said whatever word was inserted by the researchers. The team understands these results as offering evidence that we listen to our own voices to help understand the meaning of what we are saying. However, a wider implication of this potentially paranoia-inducing experiment suggests that difficult-to-detect changes may influence our perception of the truth.

Source: Lind A, Hall L, Breidegard B, Balkenius C, Johansson P. Speakers’ Acceptance of Real-Time Speech Exchange Indicates That We Use Auditory Feedback to Specify the Meaning of What We Say. Psychological Science. 2014.