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Speech shadowing shows that appearances can be deceptive

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Imagine you woke up tomorrow to find yourself in a different body, but your thoughts, memories and emotions remained unchanged.

Would your friends, family, spouse or partner still treat you the same way once they recognised your ‘inner self’ or would it be impossible to separate the physical body from the mental and emotional psyche?

This is the question that LSE Social Psychology student Kevin Corti is trying to answer in his PhD thesis.

Together with his supervisor, Dr Alex Gillespie, the two have replicated some previously unpublished cyranoid experiments undertaken by famous psychologist Stanley Miligram| in the last few years of his life.

The experiments used an audio-visual technique known as “speech shadowing” to combine two people (a source and a shadower) into one unit: a cyranoid.

The term is derived from the 17th century play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which an ugly man wins the heart of a woman through love letters signed with the name of a handsome nobleman, thus creating a hybrid personality.

By definition, cyranoids are people who do not speak thoughts originating in their own central nervous system.

Corti and Gillespie’s experiments involved the use of a covert radio-relay consisting of a small transmitter hidden in the shadower’s pocket.

The source directed the shadower with what to say – literally putting words into the latter’s mouth. The shadower then repeated these words to a third party in a conversation. The objective was to test whether the listener could differentiate between the words and the person’s appearance.

The experiments involved adults being interviewed through a child’s body, and vice versa.

Almost without exception, the third party was deceived, with very few people unable to detect the trick and falling for the “cyranic illusion”.

“What the results clearly show is that people combine both the physical elements and mind elements when forming an impression of others,” Corti said.

“Appearance does make a difference and these experiments offer a way of studying things like discrimination on the basis of physical identity. People can experience what it’s like to communicate through the body of someone quite different to themselves – for example, what it would feel like to experience a job interview as someone representative of a disempowered minority.”

The experiments show that regardless of our personality, our identities are intimately connected with our physical appearance.

Corti said the cyranoid technique could be used in workplaces and schools to make people more aware of discrimination and biases (both positive and negative) that exist in our society, despite legislation and heightened awareness.

“This technique lets you step inside someone else’s shoes, so to speak. It makes us really consider whether we connect with a person’s disposition or their looks,” he said.

In two experiments, Corti and Gillespie recruited more than 100 volunteers. In the first group, 20 people engaged in a 10-minute conversation with the cyranoid and the other 20 were tested in controlled conditions, in which there was no source, and the shadower was speaking normally.

The second experiment involved 72 participants in an adult-child cyranoid study, each taking the roles of source and shadower.

The results upheld Miligram’s theory – that the cyranic illusion is extremely powerful and people are easily fooled.

“None of the third parties picked up that the person they were having a conversation with was behaving unusually, even the adult/child dichotomy,” Kevin said. “When the deception was revealed during the debrief session, responses were a mixture of astonishment and amusement,” he added.

Corti is keen to pursue these findings in more depth, using the cyranoid experiments to see how people interact with friends and spouses through the bodies of strangers.

“The point is to see how stable our relationships are if the body is interchangeable but the mind is not, and vice versa.”

Useful notes

Corti K and Gillespie A (2014). Revisiting Miligram’s Cyranoid Method: Experimenting with Hybrid Human Agents has recently been published in the Journal of Social Psychology|.

Their research has also been featured in WIRED Magazine: http://www.wired.com/2014/09/cyranoid-experiment/|

Stanley Miligram is best known for his obedience experiments conducted in the 1960s, in which he convinced dozens of ordinary people to administer agonising electrical shocks to an innocent victim. In reality, the shocks were faked and no-one was hurt, but the study demonstrated the willingness of people to obey an authority figure, regardless of whether it conflicted with their ethics.

Widely regarded as one of the most important figures in social psychology, Miligram is also credited with the six degrees of separation theory which evolved in the late 1960s.

10 October 2014

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