Study links social status to how we comprehend meaning

A person’s social status can influence how we interpret their words, the study found. Steven Shorrock

A speaker’s social status can affect how we interpret their words, a German study has found.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, involved researchers showing the study’s 18 German participants videotapes of a powerful politician (the German Federal Minister of Finance at the time of the experiment), and an unknown person, making both true and false statements.

Examples of true statements shown to the German participants included “Michael Jackson is a pop singer”, and “The chancellor advocates a later entry of the Ukraine into the NATO alliance.”

Examples of false statements included “Fidel Castro is a pop singer” and “The federal government announces the withdrawal from the NATO alliance.”

Following the video screenings, the participants completed questionnaires based on how they rated the speakers’ likability and competence. They also wore electrodes around their scalp and eyes to measure their neurological responses.

The participant’s brains responded differently to the powerful politician compared to the unknown person, the researchers found.

In a second scenario, a popular news anchor and an unknown person made general knowledge statements. The participants’ brains all responded similarly to these videotaped statements that had little to do with the speakers ability to act on their words.

“We presented both political statements and general knowledge statements. Crucially, the early brain response particular to the politician only occurred for the political statements. This observation was key to our claim that ‘potency to act upon one’s words’ is at issue here, since it was only in these cases that the politician as a speaker potentially had the power to bring about the state of affairs described by the sentence,” said study co-author, Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, from the department of Germanic Linguistics at the University of Marburg.

“Every day, we hear statements that surprise us because they do not correspond to what we think we know about the world. Our study demonstrates that, in understanding such utterances, our brain rapidly takes into account who said them (for example, a politician versus our neighbour) and whether he or she in fact has the power to act upon what was said.”

Nenagh Kemp from the School of Psychology at the University of Tasmania, said although most people would not find the study surprising, it makes a new contribution to scientific literature.

She said the study was well designed and that it carefully controls the factors that could otherwise have influenced the participants’ responses, such as the speakers’ likability and the structure of the sentences delivered.

“It might be interesting to see if similar results held for men as well as the women participants tested here; or if the findings were similar if older participants also were included (who might have seen more news anchors and politicians come and go, succeed or fail)” said Dr Kemp, who was not involved with the study.

Speculation

However, Dr Tamara Watson, ARC Post Doctoral Research Fellow in Visual Neuroscience at University of Western Sydney disagrees with the study’s key assertion: that a speaker’s power to act on their words is what influenced how the listeners perceived the politician’s message.

“This is pure speculation on the authors’ part,” she said.

“The study shows that people are able to accurately identify a political lie no matter who is speaking. What the neural data suggests is that this outwardly objective judgement probably feels subjectively and unavoidably different when a popular politician makes an untrue political statement compared to the same statement made by an unknown person. Whether this is directly influenced by the speaker’s ability to influence the truth of the statement is speculation as yet,” said Dr Watson, who was not involved in the study.

Dr Watson said the study was only a “peek” into an interesting area but that the results could not yet be used to interpret real world scenarios due to the limited number of speaker and statement types.

Dr Malcolm Horne, Deputy Director of Florey Neuroscience Institutes, also said further research was needed before any conclusions could be drawn.