The Feeling of Another’s Knowing: How “Mixed Messages” in Speech Are Reconciled

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Listeners often encounter conflicting verbal and vocal cues about the speaker’s feeling of knowing; these “mixed messages” can reflect online shifts in one’s mental state as they utter a statement, or serve different social-pragmatic goals of the speaker. Using a cross-splicing paradigm, we investigated how conflicting cues about a speaker’s feeling of (un)knowing change one’s perception. Listeners rated the confidence of speakers of utterances containing an initial verbal phrase congruent or incongruent with vocal cues in a subsequent statement, while their brain potentials were tracked. Different forms of conflicts modulated the perceived confidence of the speaker, the extent to which was stronger for female listeners. A confident phrase followed by an unconfident voice enlarged an anteriorly maximized negativity for female listeners and late positivity for male listeners, suggesting that mental representations of another’s feeling of knowing in face of this conflict were hampered by increased demands of integration for females and increased demands on updating for males. An unconfident phrase followed by a confident voice elicited a delayed sustained positivity (from 900 ms) in female participants only, suggesting females generated inferences to moderate the conflicting message about speaker knowledge. We highlight ways that verbal and vocal cues are real-time integrated to access a speaker’s feeling of (un)knowing, while arguing that females are more sensitive to the social relevance of conflicting speaker cues.

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