About the Brain
GPS, TomTom and machines use female voices because it is all about the brain and what it prefers
We all wonder about the brain. What is it about the brain that makes us partial towards certain foods, smells and especially sounds? A baby knows the sound of their mother’s voice before they even exit the womb. Proving there is something about the brain that is inexplicable to science. Now what about the brain makes a human being prefer a female’s voice over a man’s voice? Am I crazy? No. Think about this and than think about the brain.
“Turn right in .3 miles,” says Garmin, the name I have given to my GPS unit’s automated voice.
“Would you like another transaction,” says the female voice with a British accent at my ATM.
It seems that computers usually have a uterus, but why? Could it be about the human brain? What’s so bad about a male voice coming from a computer? Is it that humans just prefer the sounds of a female? Maybe the tech companies are being sexist?
CNN recently reported that there is indeed some science behind this phenomenon and it is about the brain.
“It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” said Stanford University Professor Clifford Nass, author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.” “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”
While there could be historical reasons for this (navigation systems have had female voices since WWII and telephone operators were traditionally female), there could also be biological reasons as Nass cites a study in which fetuses were found to react to the sound of their mother’s voice but not to other female voices. The fetuses showed no distinct reaction to their father’s voice, however. Therefore are we to ask about the brain if the
Some gender stereotype researchers might argue that tech developers purposely do this for sexist reasons but, to be fair, market research is likely the impetus for what actually hits the market. It’s not that these voices are female because of their role of serving other people; it is more of the premise that the voice is more pleasing to the ear. When a female voice is more pleasing to the human ear it really makes it about the brain, the waves that translate into messages that travel across pathways.
The other thing to keep in mind is that male voices may seem more menacing due to pop culture references such as the computer in the film “2001” which used a soothing male voice to communicate things that were not particularly friendly.
Comedians have often joked about the different voices of gadgets. Robin Williams once did a joke about using a navigation system in a Mercedes Benz. He proceeds to say “Make a right” in a stern, Nazi-like voice with a German accent.
Speaking of GPS systems and the Germans, Nass’ book tells us that even though the female voice is usually the default voice, in Germany, it is different. Apparently the BMW was forced to recall a female-voiced navigation system on its 5 Series cars in the late 1990s after being flooded with calls from German men saying they refused to take directions from a woman.
I, of course, want to turn this into sketch comedy very badly: “You do know that these voices aren’t real women, don’t you?” (comedy ensues)
Isn’t it funny how deep cultural traditions can affect our behavior?
In order to make everyone happy, many GPS devices and computer text-to-speech programs now offer multiple voice options. I don’t know what it is about the brain in my head, but I would rather choose my voice than be locked down to one.
There was a an episode of Family Guy that illustrated this quite well as Peter was showing off his new system to a friend, pointing out that you could choose from three different voices: standard “left turn ahead,” Spanish (same thing in Spanish), and Yakov Smirnoff “In Soviet Russia, car drives you!”
I think that there is something to the phenomenon that female voices are more comfortable sounding. My dad would tell me years ago how he is into this female singer or that one, noting how he prefers the sound of a female to a male. My master’s thesis advisor, also a man, strangely said the same to me when in chit-chat—how he prefers the female voice.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that women are typically the better folks at relationship rhetoric or emotional expression. We, as a result, feel more comfortable with a female “stranger” in our technology than a male because it is something in which we can feel closer.
Somewhere, a professor of cultural communication is likely writing about this very subject, designing a study in which male and female voices are used as the stimuli in a cross-cultural experiment. Good stuff.
In reality though its always about the brain and what is pleasing. If science can help sales than so be it. By understanding all the things they can about the brain, people are able to capitalize easily. But about the brain, let’s just hope the artificial voices continue to be soothing, helpful, and (gulp) on our side.