When you become a new parent you get a lot of advice on how to connect with your infant. To win her over, you’re told, talk the way she talks. If Baby says “bah-bah-bah,” you say, “bah-bah-bah” back. You can make your “bah” sound like a real word by saying BAH-tel” or “BAH-th.” The content doesn’t really matter. You just need make sure you sound like her. Researchers call this “language style matching.” It draws the infant in and helps her connect with you. Experts can predict a baby’s attachment to her mother by how much they bah-bah back and forth during baby talk.
Singles seeking love and connection can learn from this, according to a new study led by James Pennebaker and Molly Ireland at the University of Texas at Austin, and their colleagues at Northwestern University. What the psychologists investigated is whether people on a first date who use similar words hit it off better than those who don’t. Could language style predict whether you and your date will decide to see each other again and even have a strong and stable relationship eventually?
To find out, the researchers recorded college students on speed dates. Thrown together for four-minute pairings, the men and women warmed up by asking each other the usual questions: Where are you from? What’s your major? How do you like college?
Using a computer algorithm to analyze the speed-daters' conversations, Pennebaker and Ireland found that men and women that wanted to see each other again matched each other’s function words significantly more often than those that had no interest in each other. Function words are like glue. They are not nouns or words; rather, they show how those words relate. They are words like the, a, be, anything, that, will, him, and well. They are the yeses and okays and the pauses and interjections between words. They are the ifs, ands, and buts. By themselves they don’t sound like much, but they set a mood.
The more a couple’s language styles matched, especially the function words, the likelier they were to hit it off. Couple whose speaking styles were in sync more than average were nearly four times as likely to desire a second date as those that were not. About 77 percent of similar-sounding speed-daters desired a second date compared to only about half the dissimilar speakers. Similar-speakers were also significantly more likely to be dating three months later.
Language style matching is usually unconscious, according to the researchers. It’s verbal body language. Just as couples on the most successful dates make more eye contact, lean in toward one another, and otherwise echo each other’s body movements, they also echo each other’s choice of words. We put ourselves in sync with people with whom we want to get close and stay close.
Pennebaker and his team also used the alogrithm to test written correspondence for language style, and found that couples who had been dating a year or more were likelier to stay together if their writing styles in text messages matched.
You can predict if you and your date or partner are in sync by taking Pennebakers’s online test at http://www.utpsyc.org/synch/. Enter your and your love’s email or text correspondence and you’ll get a number that assesses how much your language matches up — which in turn may predict how well your relationship will hold up.
If you and your partner use actual baby talk to communicate -- that is, speaking in a high-pitched voice with elongated syllables to your ickle-bitty-peshus wuv --you may have an especially healthy long-term relationship. According to a study by researchers Meredith Bombar and Lawrence Littig, baby talk helps lovers enhance feelings of mutual intimacy and attachment to each other. Compared to other couples, babytalkers are more secure and less avoidant in romantic relationships.
Why? In effect, baby talk, when mutual, is not only a form of language style matching but also a way to reactivate primal circuits of attachment. It taps into the unconditional love of a parent for child.
The old “play” circuits are activated; as in any form of fantasy, baby talk allows a couple to step outside the limits of self, space, and time. Stress is reduced — the same reason why a recent study on light S&M found that couples who spank together stay together. Babytalking lovers get a blast of dopamine and oxytocin in areas of the brain involved in reward and bonding — the ventral tegmental area, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.
Mutual use of high-pitched voices, soothing whispers, cooing, lisping, and making expressive faces is also a way of “looping” or “mirroring” affection. Along with the other bonding benefits, baby talk may be a way of flaunting one’s healthy emotional neural circuitry — suggesting not only love and commitment but also strong nurturing instincts.
Do babytalking couples make better parents? Who knows -- but secure, loving, long-term ones do.
*If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction.