The degree of polarization in American society has become impossible to ignore. People don’t just disagree with one another about politics, guns, taxes, and freedom of speech; they also disrespect those with whom they disagree.
Consider what happens when you enter “gun advocates are” into Google. The first autofill option is “gun advocates are idiots.” The second? “Gun control advocates are idiots.” When we disagree with others, we reliably assume that the opposition is more than just wrong. We assume they are stupid.
This intuitive tendency stems, in part, from the fact that we’re unable to directly experience another person’s mind compared to our own. Instead, we have to work backwards from another person’s known belief (say, “Gun control is bad”) to his or her unknown thinking or reasoning. A seemingly nonsensical belief, the inference process goes, comes from a nonsensical mind.
Psychologists argue that derogating another person’s mind in this way is a subtle form of dehumanization. That’s a problem—because when we see the opposition as an unthinking, unfeeling animal or object, instead of a thoughtful human being, we perpetuate a cycle of conflict, fueling further disagreement, hatred, and misunderstanding.
Fortunately, the psychological processes that create dehumanizing perceptions also suggest a way to reduce them: listen, very literally, to the opposition’s voice.
A recent series of experiments we have conducted, published in Psychological Science, suggests that the medium through which people interact with each other has an important effect on their impressions. In particular, we find that a person’s voice is subtly humanizing. People seem more mindful—more thoughtful, intelligent, rational, and humanlike—when we are able to hear their opinions, rather than read them.
Consider an experiment we conducted on the weekend before the 2016 US presidential election. We asked 10 Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters to explain why they supported their preferred political candidate by both speaking in front of a video camera and by writing an explanation on a computer. We then asked over 850 evaluators with varying political orientations to watch, listen, read a transcript of the speech, or read the supporter’s written explanation and to report their impressions of the communicators’ mental capacities in a survey. In particular, evaluators rated how “humanlike” —how rational, reasonable, and intellectually capable, among others—the supporter seemed.
One result was unsurprising: people derogated the mind of those with whom they disagreed. Clinton supporters rated Trump supporters as less rational and reasonable than other Clinton supporters, and vice versa.
Another result was considerably more interesting: The medium through which our participants received the other person’s message affected their evaluations of the person’s mind. Evaluators who listened to what an opponent had to say were less likely to derogate their opponent’s intellect than a person who read their opponent’s opinions. That is, the tendency to dehumanize the opposition was reduced when evaluators listened to the opposition’s voice.
This humanizing result was not simply the consequence of having more information about another person—seeing the supporter in a video did not change impressions, compared to hearing the supporter. A person’s voice seems to be uniquely humanizing.
Additional experiments help to explain why. A person’s voice conveys not only words but also paralinguistic cues like intonation and pauses. In the same way that you know a person is biologically alive because their body moves, you know that another person is mentally alive because their voice also contains movement in paralinguistic cues. Pitch rises and falls. A voice gets louder and softer. Speaking speeds up and slows down. These cues all reflect thinking as it is happening. A monotone voice that lacks these cues is judged the same as text. The problem with text is that it lacks the paralinguistic cues that convey the presence of a human mind, and readers do not seem to add them in spontaneously.
In other research, we find that the impact of a human voice extends beyond cases of political disagreement. Job candidates giving an elevator pitch are judged to be more mindful—more thoughtful, intelligent, and therefore employable—when potential employers hear the elevator pitch than when they read it. And even mindless machines, we find, can seem more mindful when they are given a human-like voice. In one experiment, drivers in a simulated autonomous vehicle rated their car to be smarter, better able to plan a route, better able to sense its surroundings, and more trustworthy when the vehicle had an interactive human voice than when it did not.
The essence of civility is treating other people with the dignity and respect that they deserve as human beings. We can encourage a little more civility in our daily life by learning to listen—quite literally—to what other people have to say.