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PLoS One. 2016 Dec 1;11(12):e0166953. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166953. eCollection 2016.

Prosody Predicts Contest Outcome in Non-Verbal Dialogs.

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Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland.
Center for Plant Molecular Biology, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany.


Non-verbal communication has important implications for inter-individual relationships and negotiation success. However, to what extent humans can spontaneously use rhythm and prosody as a sole communication tool is largely unknown. We analysed human ability to resolve a conflict without verbal dialogs, independently of semantics. We invited pairs of subjects to communicate non-verbally using whistle sounds. Along with the production of more whistles, participants unwittingly used a subtle prosodic feature to compete over a resource (ice-cream scoops). Winners can be identified by their propensity to accentuate the first whistles blown when replying to their partner, compared to the following whistles. Naive listeners correctly identified this prosodic feature as a key determinant of which whistler won the interaction. These results suggest that in the absence of other communication channels, individuals spontaneously use a subtle variation of sound accentuation (prosody), instead of merely producing exuberant sounds, to impose themselves in a conflict of interest. We discuss the biological and cultural bases of this ability and their link with verbal communication. Our results highlight the human ability to use non-verbal communication in a negotiation process.

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