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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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UW study: When text isn't enough


When you get stressed out and need to talk, do you text a friend? Or do you pick up the phone and call?

Next time, you might want to give calling a try. A recent study by psychology researchers at the UW-Madison Child Emotion Research Lab showed that hearing comforting words directly can be much more effective at reducing stress than reading them by text or instant message.

“There’s something contained in the human voice that’s independent of the message being sent,” said Leslie Seltzer, the postdoctoral researcher who led the experiment. “You really do need to hear people.”

Seltzer’s new study built off of another recent experiment in which she studied whether speech could be as comforting as physical contact. In this experiment, she subjected young girls to stress by having them do math and verbal tasks in front of an audience trained to keep neutral facial expressions.

“Kids in that age range are used to people giving them lots of positive feedback in public speaking situations,” said Seltzer, “and the absence of that is stressful.”

After the stress test, some of the girls were allowed to interact with their mothers in person, while others only got to talk to them over the phone.

Seltzer monitored the girls’ stress levels throughout the experiment by measuring two hormones. The first, cortisol, is released in response to continuing stressful situations. The second, oxytocin, is involved in female reproductive processes but also plays a role in forming and maintaining social relationships.

Girls who interacted with their mothers had higher levels of oxytocin and lower levels of cortisol than girls who didn’t get to interact with their mothers at all, indicating that they were less stressed out. Surprisingly, talking over the phone seemed to be almost as effective as interacting in person.

This experiment showed that speech is important, but it didn’t help Seltzer and her colleagues figure out exactly why it makes a difference.

“Is it the words that people are choosing that’s making a difference, or is it the identity of the speaker or the tone of voice?” Seltzer asked. In other words, which aspects of the message matter most?

Seltzer designed a second experiment to answer this question. She had a group of girls undergo the same stress test as in her previous experiment. After the stress test, some of the girls were allowed to talk to their mothers in person or on the phone, while others were only allowed to talk by instant message.

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This time, girls who talked to their mothers by instant message had less oxytocin in their urine and more cortisol in their saliva than girls who talked in person or on the phone. Seeing comforting words written out on a screen didn’t help the girls de-stress as much as actually hearing their mothers’ voices.

Because Seltzer only studied young girls interacting with their mothers, it’s hard to know how these results apply to other groups, like boys, college students or children interacting with friends rather than with their parents.

However, the experiment showed that spoken language has important effects that go beyond just the content of the message. And, said Seltzer, this is a useful reminder in a world increasingly reliant on text-based communication.

“People who want to keep in touch emotionally should consider a phone call or being there in person,” said Seltzer.

Text, emails, and instant messaging may be important ways to communicate in today’s world, but it appears that speech is a much older—and more powerful—force.

Jennifer Laaser has an awesome blog with interesting science tidbits. Check it out at

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