Research suggests you can make accurate judgments about a person’s age, health and height just from hearing them speak. We put the theory to the test
Can you hear my voice in my written words? How old do I sound? Researchers at Nottingham Trent University have found surprising parity between the judgments people make from hearing a spoken voice and the judgments they make from seeing a face. The findings, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, show that age-ratings based on voices and faces were within just four years of each other.
“People haven’t really looked at the extent to which voice and face overlap, apart from in relation to attractiveness,” says Harriet Smith, who started the research in June 2013 for her PhD. Her team worked with 47 people to whom they showed 18 photographs of faces, each for two seconds. They were asked to rate the person in the image for age, height, weight, health and masculinity/femininity. Afterwards, they were played a two-second audio clip of 18 voices and again asked to rate them. They were not told that the voices belonged to the people in the photographs.
“The really pertinent issue is how much these ratings are related to each other,” says Smith. “Are you making the same kind of judgment about people from hearing their voice and seeing their face?” She plans to continue the research, to find “whether the results have a forensic application. What might be important to the police is that face and voice might be offering quite a lot of overlapping information.”
Smith has been chatting to me on the phone for five minutes by this point. Can she judge my age, height and weight? “I wouldn’t want to do that,” she says. But she lets me estimate hers. Smith sounds authoritative, so I put her height at 5ft 6in, her age at 33 and her weight as average. From her clear, bright voice, I guess that she is extremely healthy. So how did I do?
“Pretty close,” says Smith, who is 5ft 7in and aged 30. She is in good health and her BMI is bang in the middle of the acceptable range.
This level of accuracy makes me feel confident. To test my skills further, a colleague gets an acquaintance to call me. After correctly identifying him as male, I put his age at 27 (he turns out to be 28), his height at 5ft 11in (correct) and his health at six out of seven (he later says he is suffering from a slightly sore throat). Maybe discovering a previously unsuspected talent has made me sound brighter and more confident, because the unknown caller estimates me to be 16 years younger than I am and four inches taller.
This exercise is turning out to be more fun than I thought. I estimate my next mystery caller to be 59 (she is 65) and 5ft 5in (5ft), her weight to be slightly above average (correct) and her health to be slightly below (she has recently had anaemia). I am still feeling pretty good from the first caller, but this mystery female comes within a whisker of my true height and age. It could have been worse, but there is no escaping the feeling that within five minutes I have shrunk and aged. This is probably a good place to stop.
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