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If you are young(er) you likely know precisely what vocal fry means and if you are old(er)—probably not so much. It is a cultural phenomenon seen primarily (but not only) in young(er) women as described at the Mental Floss website:

“Vocal fry describes a specific sound quality caused by the movement of the vocal folds. In regular speaking mode, the vocal folds rapidly vibrate between a more open and more closed position as the air passes through. In vocal fry, the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives it a characteristic sizzling or frying sound.”

While it is nice to have a specific definition, it is also nice to hear examples of ‘what’ vocal fry actually sounds like so you can know it when you hear it. Vocal fry is the subject of intense scrutiny by bloggers covering linguistic changes, is seen as yet another entry in the endless complaints on women who have the temerity to speak in public, and as something that bugs older, white men in particular. Vocal fry has been likened to what used to be called “valley girl speak”, is used by almost 2/3 of college students, and is a characteristic which spreads as described in the video below.

You can hear a few more examples of vocal fry and what to do about it here, here, and here. Singers use vocal fry (sometimes artificially lowering their voices to enhance the ‘fry’) and researchers are looking into how vocal fry enhances emotionality in songs. Some say the denigration of vocal fry in women is just one more way in which women are criticized and maybe that is just how their voice sounds. (It is a parallel argument to what we saw in our recent post on resting bitch face [RBF]).

Yet, vocal fry annoyed one man so much he took his significant other to a speech therapist to cure her of her annoying style of speaking (and naturally wrote an article about the experience to make her even more self-conscious than did the speech therapist). Others justify their criticism of vocal fry use by saying it will hurt your chances of getting a job (but only if you are a woman—not if you are a man) and this one is apparently backed up by actual research!

“Young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable. The negative perceptions of women who use vocal fry are stronger when the listener is also a woman. Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions, particularly when being interviewed by another woman.”

While the use of vocal fry is often attributed to women only, men apparently do a lot of vocal fry(ing) also and you can listen to this audio link of famous males using vocal fry as they speak. Apparently, radio shows, podcasts, and even television shows get multiple complaints from viewers about the annoying female vocal fry but they receive few if any complaints when male reporters use vocal fry. Hmmmm.

Here’s a thought from a 2013 Slate article (which also echoes the idea that older men in positions of authority find vocal fry particularly annoying):

As women gain status and power in the professional world, young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard. Our speech may not yet be considered professional, but it’s on its way there.

Once, an anxious parent wrote into Liberman’s blog to complain that a Ph.D. daughter populates her speech with uptalks (i.e., raising vocal inflection at the end of sentences), as do her doctor/lawyer peers. Could Liberman point to any research proving the “negative effects” of this feminine affectation?

“You’re certainly entitled to your crotchets and irks, just as your adult daughter is entitled to her prosodic preferences,” Liberman responded. “But in order for the two of you to get along, something’s going to have to give. And realistically, it’s you.”

In other words, listeners may want to get over it. But what does that mean from a litigation perspective? One of the key concerns for any public speaker (including lawyers, witnesses, and everyone else), is credibility. Styles of speech can appear sincere, frivolous, knowledgeable, or phony. As one who finds this style of speech an affectation, it reflects something about the values, priorities, and preferences of the speaker.

The speaker is working on making an impression, rather than coming across as authentic and persuasive. If a person wants to appear genuine and authoritative, examining the factors (including speech and accent) that guide impressions is worthwhile. This is one of those cases where you may want to consider pretrial research and getting mock juror reactions to a witness’ speech patterns. If they find the witnesses style of speaking “annoying”—it may be worth doing some preparation to modify speech patterns for testifying. The witness would still say the same things—they might just say them a bit differently.

It reminds me of a mock trial we did in East Texas where the attorney was concerned about how an actual jury would react to the speech of a man with vocal fry as an artifact of a chronic disease. We decided to test the younger male witness and did so by simply questioning him about his illness and how his voice related to that illness. Upon hearing that explanation, jurors embraced his testimony warmly.

But for witnesses with vocal fry unrelated to any medical condition, you cannot say, “I am younger, and people my age and most of my friends talk this way” and expect to be embraced. Instead, you may have to work on your speaking voice and intonation to see if it can be modified for courtroom testimony. While it will likely be irritating to the individual witness (particularly if they understand that men are not described as annoying when they use vocal fry)—it is likely to be more irritating to be dismissed by your audience in the courtroom as lacking in credibility.

Anderson RC, Klofstad CA, Mayew WJ, & Venkatachalam M (2014). Vocal fry may undermine the success of young women in the labor market. PLoS ONE, 9 (5) PMID: 24870387.

You can also find the full-text here:


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This is the sort of article that can either amuse or terrify you. It will amuse you if you are charmed by all the ways in which we see ourselves as superior to others. And it will terrify you if you do not want to know that you are always being observed closely by everyone around you. The article even starts off creepily:

“People-watching is an age-old pastime. People notice and observe the people around them all the time—on trains, at cafés, waiting in line, at cocktail parties and office meetings, and beyond. Pretty much anywhere there are other people, we spend a good deal of time watching them, wondering who they are, and assessing what they are like. But despite all the watching people do of others people rarely feel as if they, themselves, are being observed as they go about their daily lives. Indeed, people feel relatively invisible.

Of course it is impossible that people (on average) observe others more than they themselves are observed. Yet this is precisely what we suspect people believe. We call this bias the invisibility cloak illusion. This is an illusion that prevents you from realizing that, whether you are on a plane, in a restaurant, or at a rodeo, when you stop watching people and taking in the social scene—when you turn your attention to whatever else you are doing—the people around you are likely to raise their eyes from whatever they were doing and watch you.”

It is just spooky. We first saw this article over at the BPS Research Digest and they poked fun at it (just a little) and poked special fun at a “particularly cruel experiment” from the year 2000, involving being required to wear a Barry Manilow t-shirt—so we went to read the actual article. (We also have a blog post poking fun at a more recent Barry Manilow reference.) But we digress. Here is what the researchers did in today’s featured research.

First, the researchers verified the existence of the invisibility cloak illusion using online participants. Then, using Yale undergraduate students, they asked two participants of the same gender to sit in a waiting room prior to the experiment beginning. (We all know the experiment had already begun.) After seven minutes (precisely), the two participants were taken to separate rooms and told they were either the “observer” or the “target”. The observer wrote down everything they noticed about the target while the participant assigned to be the target wrote down everything they expected the observer would have noticed about them. Consistent with the invisibility cloak illusion, the observers produced more detailed notes about the target than the target predicted they would. But having read that old Barry Manilow experiment, our fearless researchers were not yet done.

Next, the researchers wanted to see if the spotlight effect (featured in the Barry Manilow t-shirt experiment where people required to wear the t-shirt felt exceptionally self-conscious) could co-exist with the invisibility cloak illusion. So they had half the target-participants wear a t-shirt with the Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar on it. (We think they should have used a Barry Manilow t-shirt instead but perhaps it was deemed by the Yale Human Subjects Review committee to be unreasonably cruel—hence the Escobar attire.) They repeated the waiting room experiment with the only difference being the drug lord t-shirt foisted on one of the participants. They were left in the waiting room together for five minutes and then sent to separate rooms to once again answer questions as to what they had observed or what they thought had been observed about them. Again, observers listed more behaviors and characteristics than the target thought they would have observed.

An addition to this follow-up experiment was that the observer was asked how much they thought about the target’s shirt as they observed the target prior to the experiment. And here is where it gets even creepier—the target-participants thought the observers would look at their shirt much more when they were wearing the Pablo Escobar shirt supplied by the experimenters rather than their own shirt. The observers, however, “observed, noticed, and thought about the targets’ shirts equally across conditions, regardless of whether the target was wearing a provided shirt”.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this means it is particularly important that you and your client are always aware you are on-stage at all times when in the courtroom. The most important audience is, naturally, the jury, but this research would say everyone is watching you (although the researchers remind us frequently in the article that observers go to great pains to make it appear they are not watching you). Much like the inaccurate “better than average effect”, the invisibility cloak illusion tells us we are watched even as we watch (and apparently, we are judged even as we judge). Parties and witnesses sometimes believe they are only really being observed when they are giving testimony. Alas, it is so untrue.

The researchers sum it up this way:

“The invisibility cloak illusion consists in people believing they observe others more than others observe them. This belief appears to be pervasive and persistent, despite being logically impossible in the aggregate. It cannot be true that, on average, people are noticing and observing others more than they themselves are noticed and observed. Yet everyday people experience the compelling sensation that social observations flow predominantly in one direction.

People peer out at the social world and yet they feel relatively unseen, as if they are inconspicuous consumers of their social surroundings. However irresistible this sensation may be, it is not to be trusted. The sensation of observing others while remaining relatively unseen is a mirage, obscuring the reality that we are all equally exposed to one another.”

Obviously these researchers have no interest in comforting any of us and this research is not at all comforting. What it does do though is offer an uncomfortable reminder to us—we are never off stage and certainly never off stage in the courtroom or in professional activities. And neither is anyone else.

Boothby EJ, Clark MS, & Bargh JA (2017). The invisibility cloak illusion: People (incorrectly) believe they observe others more than others observe them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112 (4), 589-606 PMID: 27977221


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Resting Bitch Face’ is, in case you missed it, the condition of having a neutral facial expression that people perceive as sour, unpleasant, and generally bitchy. Long before was RBF was a thing, a woman in my graduate school class told me that professors often thought she was angry because her face carried a flat expression when she was thinking. “It’s just how my face is!” she protested. Years later, allegedly not until 2013 (although it hit the Urban Dictionary in 2011), the phrase went viral.

It is a “real thing” say scientists, is seen in the famous and the not-famous, has caused some to become depressed, is mostly attributed to women but also seen in men, and some say it reflects contemptuousness. There is support for RBF from social media (sort of), it inspires creativity and career advice, and constant social directives to ‘smile’ or ‘be kind’. There have also been multiple (tenure-seeking) scientific studies on first impressions (which includes the impressions made about RBF particularly in women). RBF even resulted in a video parodying all those direct-to-consumer medical ads.

The term has many detractors who do not think it is at all funny (for the most part) and they wonder why women are expected be always smiling and inviting. They say it is a variation on the “Smile honey!catcalls from men congregated in groups as the woman walks by. As the name would suggest, it is a sexist distinction. There are slide shows designed to show multiple other meanings for expressions deemed to be RBF. Detractors also have career advice, decry the constant focus on women expending energy to appear pleasant to everyone, have created posters, have published articles on the costs of RBF at work, and made angry comments about health professionals giving advice on avoiding the RBF expression as you mature.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we actually rely on first impressions when doing pretrial research with mock jurors and have blogged about the importance of the first impression and strategies for being more likable a lot here. But the concept of RBF is not something we’ve discussed, and frankly, it is a dilemma. Gravity and age give all of us a more RBF facial expression. We need to disconnect the initial negative impression some jurors may have formed due to RBF. Some good advice comes from, of all places, the Business Insider:

“I’ve heard people with resting bitch face sometimes tell me that they’ll contextualize it verbally for other people. That they’ll say, “I’m not unhappy with you. I’m not displeased with the situation. I just look this way.” And that’s a really honest way to talk about this facial expression that they’re giving, because facial expressions are so critical to how we perceive what other people are telling us.”

This is just part of the video transcript on the website (with the author publicizing his new book) and this may be a good way to talk to witnesses, or parties, or yourself (if you have RBF). The message is so similar to what my friend in graduate school said to me as we first met, “That’s just how my face is”. Humanizing the party/witness with the RBF can help jurors (many of whom will have RBF themselves) reshape their first impressions of him or her.

What is instructive is that the speaker on the video has a constant grin on his face (perhaps Resting Happy Face) that makes his spoken message much less empowering than the written transcript provided under the video.

When you are testifying in court, interposing a laugh, or learning to ‘force’ a slight lift to the corners of your mouth can negate the ‘resting’ expression that may look a bit sour or unhappy.

Perhaps the best advice to give to someone who is concerned about being observed (and judged for having RBF) is just this:

So listen to me. You do not have Resting Bitch Face. You just have a face. There’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


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All this week, we have focused on research about lying but there are multiple other articles we want to share with you that will not require a full post. Think of this post as an update on deception that will aid you in preparation for court (and life in general).

Small, self-serving lies change our brain and make us more likely to lie for personal gain

It really is like a slippery slope. Like much deception research these days, this project used fMRIs to scan participants brains while they lied. First they told small lies and their brain’s amygdala lit up. As they told additional lies the amygdala became less bright as their brain got used to lying. This study was published in Nature Neuroscience which is not open access but you can read a summary of the work over at Medical News Today.

Misleading ourselves to better mislead others

Scientific American recently published an article on how we can use self-deception in order to more effectively persuade others. The article describes research (soon to be published in the Journal of Economic Psychology) that was first proposed in the 1970s and focuses on how we seek information to support what we want to believe and avoid information that does not support what we want to believe. Anyone who has done any pretrial research has seen this phenomenon play out over and over again through the darkened glass of the observation room. The author quotes one of the researchers to end the article in this somewhat disturbing paragraph:

Von Hippel [one of the authors] offers two pieces of wisdom regarding self-deception: “My Machiavellian advice is this is a tool that works,” he says. “If you need to convince somebody of something, if your career or social success depends on persuasion, then the first person who needs to be [convinced] is yourself.” On the defensive side, he says, whenever anyone tries to convince you of something, think about what might be motivating that person. Even if he is not lying to you, he may be deceiving both you and himself.

Comparing fMRI and polygraphs for lie detection

You know that polygraphs are not admissible in court and that there have been many (many) questions on the utility of fMRI research on deception when we cannot really know what it means when certain areas of the brain light up. All we can say is that they light up. In this interesting research out of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers compared fMRI readings to polygraph readings and found something surprising. When neuroscience experts (who had no prior experience in lie detection) were able to use fMRI results completed by “liars”, they were much more accurate in identifying deception than were polygraph examiners looking at the same “liars”. You can read a brief news release here or a more comprehensive neuroscience blog post here.

An update on the courtroom readiness of the fMRI for lie detection

Lest you think the preceding study means fMRI is ready for a courtroom closeup—the Macarthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience has recently released a 4-page brief summarizing the state of fMRI research and readiness to be used in courts of law. Here is what they conclude [and we quote]:

At present, many of the issues that concern the scientific community with respect to the use of fMRI for lie detection are likely to be problematic for the legal community, at least in most contexts. In fact, much of the existing research on deception has no bearing on the question that matters most to judges, lawyers, defendants, and juries, i.e., “Can fMRI-based lie detection methods provide a legally relevant answer to a specific question?”

Most scientists—including many who have reported detecting lies in the laboratory with a high degree of accuracy—agree that more and different research will need to be conducted before fMRI-based lie detection is ready for its day in court.

While the short answer is “it is not ready”—you may want to go read this for yourself and impress others with your knowledge of the specifics on why not.

Garrett N, Lazzaro SC, Ariely D, & Sharot T (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience, 19 (12), 1727-1732 PMID: 27775721


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So maybe it doesn’t pay to be beautiful  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

Or at least, maybe there is no “ugliness penalty” if you are not beautiful. We’ve written a number of times here about the many benefits given to those who are seen as beautiful or attractive. This paper debunks the stereotype and says that salary goes beyond appearance and individual differences matter too.

The researchers used a nationally representative US data set (from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health aka “Add Health”) with “precise and repeated measures of physical attractiveness”. In this data set, are researcher-ratings of physical attractiveness of all participants (on a five-point scale) at four different points over a 13 year period. And what did they find? Overall, say the authors, the “beauty premium” completely disappeared when other factors (e.g., health, intelligence, better personality traits) were controlled for statistically.

“Physically more attractive workers may earn more, not necessarily because they are more beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent, and have better personality traits conducive to higher earnings, such as being more Conscientious, more Extraverted, and less Neurotic,” explains Kanazawa.

Other research would say that beauty or attractiveness could account for some of these other personality characteristics as they can be shaped by how others respond to us. As the authors discuss their findings, they mention this reality and comment that (because the dataset ended at age 29) they are unable to account for the impact of life experience on Neuroticism (for example).

“To the extent that physically less attractive individuals are more likely to have negative life experiences, physical attractiveness may still be an ultimate cause of earnings via Neuroticism.”

However, there was also evidence for an “ugliness premium” (which is the opposite of an ugliness penalty)—in which the less attractive you were, the more you were paid. In this dataset, these were the people rated as “very unattractive” and, oddly, they always earned more than those rated as “unattractive”. And, even more surprising, sometimes the “very unattractive” earned more than those described as “average-looking” or even “attractive”.

The authors tell us the reason this sort of finding was not reported in earlier research was that the “very unattractive” and “unattractive” groups were often lumped together in a “below average” category that prevented researchers from seeing the benefits of being “very unattractive”.

Overall, say the authors, there is some evidence for the beauty premium but no evidence for the ugliness penalty. Further, there is strong evidence for the (very) ugliness premium. They point out that this survey did not continue after age 29 and thus cannot answer the question of whether the beauty premium or the ugliness penalty are cumulative throughout working careers. On the other hand, the inclusion of attractiveness ratings in a dataset is highly unusual and the authors hope more researchers will include these ratings in the future datasets.

“Physical attractiveness is a very neglected variable in social science data, and no other longitudinal data sets on a representative sample measures it as precisely as Add Health does.”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we think beauty goes a long way in a party, a witness, and even an attorney. On the other hand, there can be a beauty backlash, so you need to watch for that in pretrial research as well. The likability factor is also very important and even an unattractive witness can seem more appealing when likable. (You can see our more than 200 posts on witness preparation here.)

From a law office management perspective, this is also an area to which you need to pay special attention. You will want to modify procedures so that promotions and salary increases are based on objective performance data and not on gender, beauty, age, ethnicity, disability status and so on. (You can see 60+ posts on law office management here.)

[We want to give you full disclosure regarding the research report cited in this post. The senior author is a very controversial figure whom colleagues have criticized as unreliable and/or as a researcher who personifies “bad science”. He has been criticized for many things and fired from several writing positions due to the negative and public reactions to his work. You can make your own judgments as to the merit of this research but we wanted you to have the full picture.]

Kanazawa, S., & Still, MC (2017). Is there really a beauty premium or an ugliness penalty on earnings? Journal of Business and Psychology.


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