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You used to call me on my cell phone…


My baby brother is 16, a rising high school junior. As much as I love him, he can really be a pain. He’s too smart to take advice, too cool to be silly, too busy to bother. “You were just like him”, my parents tell me. Obviously the 10 year gap between my adolescence and my brother’s has obscured their memory. At least I knew how to call people back.

“Texting is just like talking on the phone. What’s the big deal?” This is the response I get from my brother when I finally get him on the phone. I’ll call and call only to get an annoyed text message in return. While I don’t appreciate the attitude, I still want to hear his voice. And, admittedly, a quick and snarky response to teenage ‘tude is always more gratifying when vocalized.

Text messages are a great way to quickly communicate with friends and family, but they do not invoke the same emotional responses that spoken words do. Image Credit: Jhaymesisviphotography via Flikr

My brothers perspective does give me pause, though. As our society becomes more and more reliant on instant messaging, automated responses, and internet dating, maybe phone calls are on their way to becoming obsolete. Maybe, just maybe, my little brother is right. Ugh, I cringe at the thought.

Older siblings, fear not! My lil’ bro is so wrong. Because science says so.

Research investigating social behavior and human evolution shows that conversation between trusting individuals can reduce levels of the stress-hormone cortisol and increase levels of the love-hormone oxytocin.

But what is it about speech that we, as a species, find so soothing? Is it the words of reassurance, or is it the sound of a familiar voice? In a recent study conducted by evolutionary psychologists these elements of human communication were examined in turn, comparing text messages and phone calls.

In this study, a group of pre-adolescents were put under a tremendous amount of stress. That is, they were asked to take a math test, alone, in front of an audience (talk about nerve wracking!). After taking the exam, their cortisol and oxytocin levels were measured. The children were then allowed to either talk to their parents in person, talk to them on the phone, send them a text message, or rest by themselves. Again, their cortisol and oxytocin levels were measured.

The study found that in both cases where the children could hear their parents voices, either in person or on the phone, their cortisol levels decreased, and their oxytocin levels increased. On the other hand, the children in the text message group experienced an increase in cortisol and decrease in oxytocin. In fact, cortisol levels in the text message group indicated higher levels of stress than the group that had no contact at all. Talk about harsh.

Hearing a familiar voice, either in person or on the phone, can lower stress and strengthen social bonds. Image Credit: Owlspine via Flikr

The researchers concluded, quite simply, that humans still need to hear voices to cue respective hormonal responses. While written speech is capable of communicating emotion to those who can read, it is a relatively new form of human communication. Vocal signaling is several hundreds of millions of years older, indicating that auditory signals have evolved to be better suited to signal hormones necessary for the suppression of stress, formation of bonds and other behaviors critical to the success of our species.

So next time you hear that hotline bling, remember that can only mean one thing… someone really wants to hear your voice. So pick up the phone. And as a concluding note, to all you little brothers out there: give your big sister a call.

You used to call me on my cell phone…  Image Credit: Media.giphy.com

mz_aboutauthorMichelle Ziadie is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Genetics at UGA working on the evolution of maternal effects and undergraduate evolution education. A native of Miami, Florida with caribbean roots, Michelle never turns down an opportunity to engage with spicy food or spicy music. When she’s not dancing the night away with friends or getting lost in the Georgia wilderness, Michelle can be found sipping a café Cubano and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with her kitten, Thomas. More from Michelle Ziadie.

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