We Mimic the Speech Patterns of People We Agree With


When people talk, they tend to inadvertently take on each other’s speech patterns, adopting similar pronunciation, rates of speech, posture, and more. The degree to which we fall in with someone else’s speech patterns may have to do with how much we agree with them, and how willing we are to compromise. 

A new study by linguists at the Ohio State University and the University of Rochester in the journal Language Variation and Change tested how people reacted to ideologically charged speech. The participants heard different versions of sentences from people with different accents using a slightly different word order. For instance, some heard  "Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers,” while others heard "Congress is giving welfare moochers too much money.”  

One of the drawings the study participants described. Image Credit: University of Rochester

They were then asked to describe a set of pictures. When participants agreed with the ideology behind the sentence, they were more likely to mirror its structure when describing an image. Those who heard “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers” described the (kind of random) image above as “The waitress is giving a banana to the monk,” mimicking the word order of the political sentence. Those who did not agree with the sentiment were less likely to mimic the speaker’s language patterns. The effect remained the same regardless of the speaker's accent.

A different kind of alignment appeared among participants who said they preferred to compromise during conflicts. Even if they disagreed with the ideologically charged sentence, they showed a greater tendency to mimic the speaker’s language patterns. 

Humans are social creatures who tend to be drawn to people who look like them and even share some of their genes, so it’s not entirely surprising that we also subtly try to mirror someone we're having a conversation with. It may be a subconscious way to get them to like and trust us—a read-between-the-lines way of saying, "Hey, I'm one of you." 

[h/t: Eurekalert]
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The Easy Way to Reduce Robocalls on Your Smartphone

We can shoot a Tesla into orbit, but we still can’t stop telemarketing scam artists from calling us. The Federal Trade Commission fields an average of 375,000 complaint calls every month about these nuisance solicitations, which often disguise their identities using spoof numbers and are hoping to trick you into revealing your financial information. They’re annoying, illicit, and insulting, but they can be reduced.

According to Verge writer Chris Welch, robocalls sent to iPhone or Android smartphones can be thwarted a number of different ways. Many major cell carriers offer apps that block numbers suspected of being fraudulent. AT&T calls theirs Call Protect, for example, and alerts you when an incoming call seems dubious. You can then choose to ignore it or put it on a permanent block list. T-Mobile has Scam Block, which keeps tabs on known scam numbers and prevents them from getting through.

These services range from being free to leaving a minor ($2.99) surcharge on your monthly bill. For more aggressive blocking, third-party apps like Nomorobo and RoboKiller maintain huge databases of scam numbers and use them to compare incoming calls—once a robocall is detected, it’s cut off.

If you’re still not satisfied with one of these options, you may want to consider a hardware upgrade: Recent models from Samsung like the Galaxy S and Note use a Smart Call feature to curtail unwanted calls.

People who get calls on conventional landline phones shouldn’t give up hope, either. Broadband services like Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) have a version of Nomorobo that will block calls from confirmed scam numbers.

[h/t the Verge]

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.
The London Lawyer Who Tried to Contact Mars via Telegraph
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.

Earthlings often like to imagine Martians as belligerent, as in the War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 or the 1996 movie Mars Attacks!. But for Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson, a London lawyer and former town clerk of Shoreditch, the Martians were a gentle people who only wanted peace.

Sure, the inhabitants of the Red Planet might look a little alarming—they were often more than 7 feet tall with huge ears and large shocks of hair, according to Robinson—but other than that they were much like humans, living in houses and driving cars, and enjoying simple pleasures such as drinking tea and smoking pipes.

Robinson knew all this because he had been telepathically communicating with a Martian woman named Oomaruru since the early 1920s, or so he claimed. In March of 1926, he had also held a séance with a psychic researcher and a medium whose hand wrote the Martian alphabet and drew a sketch of Oomaruru. A British newspaper, the Sunday Referee, later described the drawing, saying she had a “whimsical, half-smiling mouth, dark, penetrating eyes, curious nose, and very large ears.”

Though this all of this may sound absurd today, at the start of the 20th century, many scientists believed in the possibility of life on Mars. The discovery of what astronomers identified as canals on the Red Planet (first observed by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877) had excited imaginations, and with inventions like the telephone and radio, science was continually turning what had once seemed impossible into the possible. Furthermore, the rise of Spiritualism in the 19th century—based on the idea of communication with the dead—remained popular, with notable advocates like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraging people to believe contacting the beyond was a worthwhile pursuit. Was contacting Mars really so much of a stretch?


A 1926 memo from the Central Telegraph Office concerning Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson
BT Archives

In October 1926, Robinson decided to take his communications with Oomaruru to the next level—by going to the post office. At the time, London’s General Post Office had recently opened Rugby Radio Station, which served as a global radio telegraph hub.

A memo unearthed from London’s Central Telegraph Office explains that Robinson made arrangements to transmit a message for a standard long-distance rate of one shilling, six pence per word (then about 35 cents).

“Dr. Mansfield Robinson is singularly serious in this business, and we may expect other messages from him,” the memo reads. “I do not think we could have any conscience pricks as regards taking the money for he is perfectly sane and seems to have devoted his life to the study of possible intercommunication with the planet.”

The transmission, scheduled for 11:55 on the evening of October 27, used Robinson’s requested wavelength of 18,240 meters. It consisted of three words: Opesti, Nipitia, Secomba. Their meanings remain a mystery.

A handwritten letter from Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson to a telegraph office concerning his Mars transmission
BT Archives

Postal clerks stood by with a receiver tuned to a wavelength of 30,000 meters, which Robinson said was the Martian’s preference. Sadly, they received no response.

Undeterred, Robinson waited two years for the Red Planet to get close to Earth again. And then in October 1928 he made another attempt.

Once more, the post office agreed to dispatch his message. A memo states that its reasons were “mainly in order to obtain free publicity for Rugby.” Officials reasoned that press coverage would promote its rate far more efficiently than paid advertising.

This time, the messages read, “M M Lov to Mars x Erth" and "M M God is lov." They were transmitted at 2:15 am on October 24.

Again, no discernible message from Mars came through.

Robinson blamed the equipment. “The wavelength of 18,700 meters used by the post office does not go through the heavy-side layer of rarefied air, and therefore the signals are reflected around the earth,” he told the Associated Press. “The Martians were very annoyed that the signals could not come to them. They were sitting up for hours to receive signals.”

In December, Robinson made another attempt. This time he used a radio tower from Brazil, armed with wavelengths of more than 21,000 meters.

Unfortunately, changing hemispheres did not change the results.


Robinson’s mission went quiet until January 1930, when he apparently dispensed with radio communication and reported that he’d telepathically conducted an interview with Oomaruru for the United Press. In his alleged conversation, she suggested opening a College of Telepathy. She also expressed dismay at the lack of world peace after nearly 2000 years of “listening to the teachings of Jesus.”

Telepathy, Oomaruru believed, would make the world a better place. Not only would it help humans reach Mars, it would also help simplify communication right here on Earth. Robinson believed it was the “missing link in progress.” He was frustrated by the inefficiencies of the telephone (wrong numbers, busy signals), which would disappear, he said, “when the world learns to telepathize.”

Six months later, a United Press correspondent reported that Robinson had opened the College of Telepathy, staffed with six teachers and a telepathic dog named Nell. To help build the student body, Robinson offered free tuition for a month to the first seven pupils. He explained that each would be required to have “complete chastity and abstinence from flesh, alcohol and tobacco, coupled with good health and a desire to seek spiritual development.” Nell’s role was not clarified.

The article also noted that at the time of its writing there was only one student, named Claire. In addition to meeting the aforementioned requirements, she also signed a membership declaration in which she agreed to obey its rules, keep its secrets (unless “compelled by a competent court of justice”), and use her powers for the benefit of others.

No further details on attendance or successes were ever reported in the press. However, Robinson made headlines again in 1933 after claiming to be telepathically in touch with Cleopatra, who was living on Mars as a farmer’s wife. This may not have pleased his own wife, who once told reporters that she wouldn’t allow his experiments to be conducted at home. “There will be no foolishness around this house,” she said.

Robinson continued his telepathic communications with Oomaruru and Cleopatra for a few years, but died in 1940 at age 75 without ever having made radio contact with Mars. For the last several years of his life, at least, it seems he respected his wife's wishes and kept the foolishness to a minimum.


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