What is it about?

Every time we meet someone who is not familiar to us, we instantly make all sorts of judgements about who we think they are and what they are like as a person. We might think that they are very trustworthy and intelligent or they might be arrogant, mean or just weird. Most of the research on this topic has focused on how these first impressions are formed when we see someone’s face but from our everyday experiences we know that these judgements can be based on other types of information, such as a person’s voice. In fact, just by hearing someone’s voice we form impressions of whether they are male or female, of how old they might be, where they might be from and even if they are in good health or not. In our study, we explored how quickly listeners can form impression of someone’s personality after hearing their voice. To do this, we asked listeners to rate voices saying the vowel “ah” on key social traits: Trustworthiness, dominance and attractiveness. We also controlled the length of these recordings, such that some listeners heard voices for only 50ms, while others heard the voices for 100ms, 200ms, 400ms or 800ms. We then compared the ratings formed after 800ms with those formed after a shorter exposure. This way, if we find a very similar first impression rating after 100ms and 800ms, we would have some evidence that 100ms is sufficient to form a stable first impression that does not change dramatically with more time. Our results showed that we need about 400ms (that is, under half a second) to form and report on a first impression of how trustworthy, dominant or attractive someone might sound. Coincidentally (or not), this is how long it takes us to say “Hello”. In some cases, though, these impressions were formed much faster – for example, it only takes us 50ms to make up our mind about how dominant a male voice might be.

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Why is it important?

Forming impressions of other people is something that we do all the time. While our first impressions are rarely accurate, they are still important because they can influence many of our decisions, attitudes and behaviours. For example, they can influence who we vote for in an election, who gets hired for a certain job and how much they are paid as well as who might be picked out form a police line-up, who we find guilty of a crime and how severe their sentence might be. It is therefore important for us to understand how information from the human voice or face might be used to form and inform these impressions. By showing that impressions can be formed very quickly, our findings further underline that voices provide rich signals from which listeners will almost instantly extract (subjective) information about another person.

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This page is a summary of: Trait impressions from voices are formed rapidly within 400 ms of exposure., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, February 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/xge0001325.
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