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An inverted U-shaped priming effect

Linguistic priming, the phenomenon in which we start to speak like the person we are speaking to, is a well-established behavioural characteristic in the dialogue field. But why do we do this? What is function behind changing our speaking-style to better match that of our partner? One theory is that it has to do with likeability. A recent paper by Heyselaar and colleagues investigated whether this is indeed the case.
An inverted U-shaped priming effect

By mimicking our conversation partner, the theory states that we are in fact subconsciously signalling that we like them. However, previous studies looking into this theory have found contradictory effects. One study showed that we prime more to people we find similar to ourselves, whereas another showed the opposite. One major problem with these studies is that opinion is a very personal and abstract concept: the person that you greatly dislike is very much liked by a different person. Additionally, just because an actor is hired to be likeable one day, does not mean that they are equally likeable the next day. People have their ups and downs and sometimes come over much better depending on the time of day, how they slept, how much coffee they have had, etc. Therefore, Heyselaar and colleagues decided to replicate this priming effect by conducting it in Virtual Reality.

Participants interacted with three different digital persons ("avatars"). These avatars acted exactly the same with each participant, so they should give the same impression with every participant. Participants would complete a card task with the three avatars (with each avatar individually) wherein we could measure whether the participant changed their speaking-style to match that of the avatar. Afterwards, they were able to evaluate the avatar on how much they liked them.

We found an interesting result: we found no evidence that you prime more to the avatar that you like best, nor that you prime least to the avatar you like best. Instead, participants primed most to the avatar they found "average", and primed less to the avatars they found either really likeable or really dislikeable. Therefore, previous studies may not have found contradictory results after all; perhaps they were just measuring on different sides of the same scale.


Read the paper:

Neurobiology of Language

What is the neurobiological infrastructure for the uniquely human capacity for language? The focus of the Neurobiology of Language Department is on the study of language production, language comprehension, and language acquisition from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Read more...

Director: Peter Hagoort

Secretary: Carolin Lorenz


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