Brevity and Attractiveness: Misreporting Linguistic Science

The Daily Telegraph recently carried a science report suggesting that logorrhea might damage men’s sexual chances. “Why silent types get the girl,” said the headline: “Study finds that men who use shorter average word lengths and concise sentences are preferred, while men who use verbose language are deemed less attractive.”

Apparently the “Hollywood cliché that the strong, silent type always gets the girl” has been scientifically validated. The most appealing guys are “men who use shorter average word lengths and concise sentences.”

Uncounterintuitively, autointrospection induced a personal experience of hyperexponentially antagonistic attitudinality toward the possibility of this purported psychosociolinguistic investigation possessing even a microquantum of verisimilitude.

That is, I don’t want the claim to be true. I use big words but still want to be seen as hot.

However, no worries: The whole report is bogus—the most outrageously inaccurate piece of science misreporting I’ve seen in a long time (which is really saying something).

The scientist quoted was the delightfully surnamed linguist Professor Molly Babel of the University of British Columbia, and the journal cited was PLOS One, so I Google-searched on {"molly babel" "plos one"} and rapidly found the original research paper: “Towards a More Nuanced View of Vocal Attractiveness,” by Molly Babel, Grant McGuire, and Joseph King.

I read it with care, and found no reference whatsoever to verbosity, vocabulary, conciseness, sentences, or even language. It’s about aesthetic reactions to aspects of voice quality, not language use.

The experimental stimuli were 15 isolated monosyllabic words read aloud by volunteers. The words (chosen to illustrate three different vowel sounds) were: deed, key, peel, teal, weave, cot, pod, sock, sod, tot, boot, dune, hoop, toot, and zoo.

“Concise sentences” were never mentioned. In fact sentences were excluded for a specific methodological reason: “In terms of pinpointing aspects of the acoustic signal that cue judgments of vocal attractiveness, single words are more appealing than full sentences, as they allow for a more controlled acoustic analysis.”

Nor does the paper ever mention word length. The only remotely similar factor is phonetic duration of word tokens. Females tend on average to take a few thousandths of a second longer to utter monosyllabic words in isolation than male speakers do; and male speakers were “rated as more attractive if their productions were on average shorter in duration” (i.e., if they tended to match stereotypical male syllable duration).

I contacted Professor Babel about the reporting of her work, and she was aghast (to be precise, her comment was: “Yeeesh”).

What went wrong? Should we assume outright dishonesty on the part of the reporter? Or should we trust the maxim that you should never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity? My guess is that neither hypothesis fills the bill: The falsity here is too gross to be feasibly risked as a lie, and too obvious to be attributable to careless reading.

I suspect that to find the explanation we have to look to the whole culture of modern science reporting, where university media-relations offices badger scientists into giving them popularized and slightly inaccurate media releases about their work, and newspaper editors are trying to meet deadlines with sexed-up stories and snappy eye-catching headlines. Working together, they can turn science into mush.

The media release from UBC on the Babel et al. paper does, regrettably, contain the phrase “longer average word length” (which never appears in the paper or in any direct quotation from Professor Babel). I can imagine the phone conversation:

Linguistic Researcher: “… and we found that reported attractiveness correlated significantly with average spectral energy burst duration.”

Media Relations Person (scribbling): “Would it be all right to say ‘word length’ where you said that stuff about duration?”

Linguistic Researcher (with some misgivings): “Umm, well, OK, I guess.”

A day later, it is 8 p.m. in a newspaper office far, far away, where Grizzled Managing Editor is still short 200 words for the science-and-other-quirky-news page that must go to bed very soon. He slaps the UBC press release on the desk of his colleague Dubious Assistant Editor, and barks an order:

GME: “Tell the new girl to turn this into a story about how guys who use fancy words can’t get women.”

DAE: “I’ve spoken to her about it; she’s skeptical about whether that’s what the study actually shows.”

GME: “Oh really. Well, she can buzz off and get a job at Nature if she wants; but if she fancies working here she has 20 minutes to give me 200 words about verbosity being a turn-off. And slap a picture of a film star on it.”

DAE (mindful that discretion is the better part of valor): “OK, I’ll tell her.”

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