"Language was invented for one purpose...to woo women,” according to Robin Williams' character in the film Dead Poets Society. Scientific research backs him up. Indeed, men are wont to creative displays when trying to signal sexual interest to a woman. A recent study investigated this dynamic further: do men speak with more flair to women during ovulation, when the mating dance reaches a fever pitch?
By now research has established that when a woman is fertile, it's like the moon is full. Males and females are impelled by forces greater than themselves to seduce each other in the service of evolution's greatest good: reproduction. Ovulation sparks shifts in a woman's appearance and behavior that make her more appealing to men. As a woman gears up to mate, fertility-related hormones induce changes in, for example, facial skin tone, vocal pitch, and scent; she will also walk, talk and dress in a sexier fashion. Men register these often subtle cues, which subsequently stimulate the desire to mate.
In their paper Female Fertility Affects Men's Linguistic Choices, Jacqueline Coyle and Michael Kaschak explored whether these changes would also extend to how men speak to women. The language people use in everyday conversation is largely unconscious, but it divulges the nature of the relationship. Individual linguistic choices, such as voice, vocabulary, and sentence structure, can achieve particular interpersonal goals. For instance, favoring certain language patterns over others grounds one's identity and membership in a group. Language usage can also capture a person's stance toward their speaking partner.
Previous research shows that in the course of a dialogue, speakers naturally match their behavior across the spectrum of linguistic structure. This includes how fast they talk, vocabulary, and sentence construction. However, this synchrony is undetectable by both speakers and trained observers. Researchers use the degree of language matching as a measuring stick of the affiliation between fellow conversationalists. Some contend that people match their linguistic behavior as a way to bond; conversely, they stray from the linguistic behavior of their conversational partner as a tactic to impose social distance. This argument squares neatly with a larger framework of research demonstrating that the matching and mimicry of behavior greases the wheels of social communication, and boosts good feelings between people.
Thus, the matching of verbal and non-verbal behavior offers a revealing window into social interaction, and the extent to which people are synchronous can foretell a variety of outcomes. With respect to the scope of this study, research shows that the degree to which potential romantic partners match their language use is related to a greater likelihood that they would embark on a romantic relationship and that the relationship would be stable. As such, it should follow that aligning language would facilitate the bonding between possible mates. But in matters of love, things are often not so easy or straightforward.
Enter the variable of creativity into the equation. It is a highly attractive quality in romantic partners, and research suggests that men who are out to mate will display creativity, heightened non-conformity, and risk taking. Such presentations are widely understood as indicators of genetic fitness. Referring to a study by Rosenberg and Tunney, such displays also apply to linguistic choices. In this work, males primed with mating goals tended to use less common words (essentially flashing their creativity and non-conformity) compared to males primed with friendship goals. These findings advance the idea that there are scenarios in which men may not align their linguistic behavior with a woman as a way to seduce her.
In order to test whether men's verbal alignment with a female speaking partner would be swayed by her increased attractiveness during ovulation, they had men interact with female confederates who were at various points in their menstrual cycle. At the start of each trial, the participant and confederate sat at a small table to fill out forms. This physical circumstance was purposefully designed to place the participant in close proximity to the confederate, and expose him to appealing fertility cues (for those confederates who were ovulating). The pair were free to interact during this time period, though confederates were instructed to behave in a subdued and neutral manner. Previous studies suggest that it takes just a few minutes for men to detect that a woman has mating on her mind.
Following this interaction period, the participant and confederate sat at different tables separated by a divider. They then engaged in a task that involved taking turns describing pictures to each other. The investigators tested for language matching using structural priming, which is basically like a steady see-saw of sentence constructions across a dialogue. Typically, upon producing or hearing a particular sentence structure, a person is more likely to employ it themselves. Though it sounds incidental, that's kind of the point—structural priming is a robust phenomenon. The researchers then examined the degree to which the duo's language patterns matched. (Technically, the authors analyzed the extent to which double-object and prepositional-object constructions were in alignment).
Coyle and Kaschak saw two possible outcomes. Either the men would find the fertile confederates sexier, and in turn match her language usage as a means to bond. This result would remain in keeping with research that men find fertile women to be more appealing and that individuals respond to attractive potential mates by aligning their behavior. In this case, it would apply to language. Yet it could also be that men with activated mating goals display non-conforming or creative behavior to fertile women to indicate genetic fitness. Put another way, would a woman's ovulating ways encourage men to match their language with hers to affiliate, or would he dazzle her with his verbal plumage?
What did the researchers find? The men in this study opted for the route to verbal plumage: the higher the level of fertility in a female conversation partner, the lower the level of language matching by men. The authors conceptualize their results as a a three-step process. First, men find fertile women appealing and their mating goals are stimulated. Second, the activation of mating goals leads to displays of genetic fitness, including creativity and non-conformity. Third, non-conformist and creative displays lead men to use language patterns that do not match those of fertile women in an effort to show fitness as a mate.
So perhaps when Wallace Stevens wrote “A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman,” he sensed the deeper evolutionary forces at play.
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Coyle JM, Kaschak MP (2012) Female Fertility Affects Men's Linguistic Choices. PLoS ONE 7(2): e27971. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027971
Rosenberg J, Tunney RJ (2008) Human vocabulary use as display. Evolutionary Psychology 6: 538–549.