Comforting Words

Whether we are children or adults, if we are having a bad time we all respond to comforting words from a friend, spouse, parent or even a kindly passer-by. Often “good advice” isn’t what’s needed, but just the soothing sounds of sympathy. “There, there, don’t cry” doesn’t sound very helpful to a child with a cut knee. However, it usually works better than a detailed description of how we are going to clean it up and what might happen if it’s neglected, let alone what complications should be looked for in the future.

There are some situations in which we can’t be there in person, but the cell phone is now becoming almost universal, so we can elicit some soothing sympathetic words to comfort us that way. But what about instant messaging or texting? Can that do the job?

Seltzer et al of the U of Wisconsin-Madison set out to study exactly that and they have a pre-print that is flashing around in cyber-space as we speak (1). In their set of experiments, the ‘lab rats’ were young girls who were stressed out somewhat so the level of cortisol in their saliva was nicely elevated. Some were allowed to talk to their Moms, some over the phone and some in the flesh, whilst others were allowed to instant message and some, the valiant control group, just had to tough it out.

Talking to Mom, phone or in person, dropped cortisol levels and produced oxytocin, a hormone that induces calmness and decreases fear. Instant messaging did nothing like that, and their cortisol levels stayed as high as those who were just trying to get over it. The conclusion was that it is the sound of the familiar voice that helps and not the words.

However, the familiar may be especially potent, but I’m sure that sympathetic noises will work well even from an unfamiliar source. Maybe we should write a smart-phone app that will come out with a random variety of sympathetic phrases with a soft comforting voice speaking them. Then we can listen to a random selection to calm us down in stressful situations. Music helps, but the right voice might be better.

  1. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.05.004

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