Research is frequently polluted by confirmation bias; personally, I believe this is the case more often than not. A particularly vivid example is the work on “vocal fry,” described as “slowly fluttering the vocal cords, resulting in a popping or creaking sound at the bottom of the vocal register.” Supposedly a 2011 study determined that two-thirds of college women were doing it, and now a paper by Rindy C. Anderson, Casey A. Klofstad , William J. Mayew, and Mohan Venkatachalam announces the results of further research showing how harmful it is. I admit: I’ve now read a lot of stuff about vocal fry, which I had never heard of until recently, and I’m still unclear on exactly what the hell it is, other than “talking in an annoying fashion.” The Atlantic tells us that this is vocal fry, which means it consists of talking like Zooey Deschanel does here:
Got it? OK, now you can explain it to me.
Anyway, what the exact phenomenon is doesn’t matter to the ethics issue; all you have to know is that a respected, serious, scholarly study has spawned lots of media attention by claiming that its data shows that women and men who exhibit vocal fry in their speech patterns will tend to be hired less often than job interviewees who don’t, because employers view them as untrustworthy, among other things. (The study’s catchy title is “Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market,” because, as we know, women are all that matter these days, having had war declared on them and all.)
The 800 subjects in the study were asked to listen to various speakers of both genders say the words, “Thank you for considering me for this opportunity” using normal speech inflections and imitating Zooey, or doing whatever it is Zooey does when she speaks to E! They were then asked to indicate which of the paired hypothetical job applicants, the speaker using his or her natural inflictions or the speaker channeling Zooey, “was perceived to be more educated, competent, trustworthy, attractive, and which speaker they would hire.” The expectation was that listeners would have different attitudes towards speakers who used vocal fry than they would towards those who didn’t sound like airheads.
Yes, money is really spent on studies like this as roads go unpaved and bridges unrepaired.
On the website Language Log (which is on the Ethics Alarms links list, incidentally), guest blogger Christian de Canio deconstructs the study in detail, but the the flaw in it should be obvious and doesn’t really require expert assistance to detect. Hmmm…the speakers used in the study were asked to speak in their normal way, and then to pretend, for the benefit of listeners who didn’t know them, that they spoke a different–and annoying— way. Would you think a job interviewee who sounded as if he or she was faking a vocal pattern or accent was trustworthy? I wouldn’t, and it wouldn’t matter if they were imitating Zooey Deschanel, Winston Churchill or Donald Duck. Most people sense that something is off when a person they are meeting for the first time is faking it, whatever “it” is, even if they can’t quite tell what’s amiss. The study doesn’t tell women much about “vocal fry”; it simply demonstrates what should be obvious to all without research: that when you try to fool people you are meeting and trying to impress, they tend to pick up on the fakery and conclude that you can’t be trusted.
This is a cautionary tale about research, not interview skills, and why all studies and all research should be received with skepticism, especially when—faith be praised!—a study proves exactly what the researcher set out to prove. It also reminds us how journalists—you know, those skeptical professionals who are supposed to apply objectivity, judgement and sound analysis to raw facts and assertions before breathless reporting them as discovered truth—frequently do a lousy job when writing about something they don’t understand very well, which is, sadly, almost everything. NPR, Time, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and others all thought this study was worth reporting as reliable.
I should note that the Language Log piece’s headline, “Vocal fry probably doesn’t harm your career prospects,” is an unwarranted conclusion. Sounding like a 13-year old doesn’t harm your career prospects? Just because the study is garbage is no reason to repeal what we already knew.
We should nonetheless be grateful about one thing regarding this worthless research and its misbegotten results. If it had proved that there was an advantage in talking like Zooey Deschanel—except in the case of Zooey, of course, a talented comic actress I love as long as she is reading what someone else wrote for her to say, and has a director making sure she doesn’t sound like an idiot—-we’d all be in trouble.