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The McGurk Effect


Our friend Johnnie Moore recently wrote about the McGurk Effect, looking at how what we what see influences what we hear. Take a look at the video – it makes quite compelling viewing, doesn’t it!

There is a process taking place in our brain every time we talk with someone. A clever little sliproad that helps us to anticipate what the other is about to say and form our reply while they are still speaking.

Psychologists Simon Garrod and Martin Pickering named this process interactive alignment.

It puts this everyday occurrence – conversation – into perspective: our brain juggles preconceptions, assumptions on what each other knows and the appropriateness of how we address people in order to make communication work for us.

As a result, interactive alignment greatly simplifies production and comprehension in dialogue. Aristotle described the three tenets of dialogue as Pathos – emotional connection, Ethos – credibility, and Logos – data, proof and facts.

Shouldn’t all this apparent effort put us off conversation? Garrod and Pickering say that we are made for dialogue rather than monologue, which means it is actually less effort to have dialogue because there is a brain process for it – each person is driving the other along.

They say we cannot predict how a conversation will go and that the level of detail depends on the amount of shared knowledge. Sounds pretty straightforward?

But each person in the conversation is switching between speaking and listening and there are social rules to consider, such as when is it appropriate to speak?

On average we start speaking about half a second before our partner finishes. This means we are already planning what we are going to say while still listening to our partner. This gets more complex in multi-party conversations, when we also have to decide who to address. Is everyone in the conversation on the same page?

Garrod and Pickering liken the switching around and jumping from role to role to the confusion you feel when you are trying to write a letter while somebody is speaking to you.

Having a joint goal – such as expanding understanding of the possibility of flexible working hours – helps each person in the conversation play a part. But it doesn’t tackle all the points we’ve mentioned, such as appropriateness.

The most obvious form of how people use each other’s thought process is shown in the language they use. When formulating their response, speakers reuse the structures that they have just interpreted as listeners. So “what will you do tomorrow?” is answered with “tomorrow I will probably…” meaning less planning is involved as the conversation feeds a thread from A to B.

Appropriateness comes with conversation and those involved building up common ground. This reaches a point where there is less guesswork or subconscious processing involved. Switching from speaking to listening also becomes dependent on this common ground.

A concept called the perception-behaviour expressway explains links between perception and action across a wide range of situations, not just conversation. For example when you yawn, you often cause others to yawn.

And mirroring – the act of subconsciously copying someone’s actions and gestures when you are talking with them – is another level of interactive alignment and it can build rapport, much the same as using similar language does.

In getting your message across, this does not mean you should artificially mimic your audience, however you can try mirroring body language such as the position they sit in or when they brush hair out of their face. Most effective is the moment you find your audience is mimicking you: then you know they are subconsciously open to what you are saying.

In summary, you can magnify your chances of strong interactive alignment and mirroring, which will undoubtedly build rapport, by simply being aware of shared knowledge, shared language and mirrored gestures.

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