"Jerk-O-Meter" Measures Phone Rudeness

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 7, 2005

People know when they're on the phone with an inattentive jerk, but they might not realize how they sound to others. A new telephone technology, dubbed the Jerk-O-Meter, could help.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology media lab researchers have created a device that analyzes psychological cues in the human voice to rate a speaker's interest in the conversation they're having.

The machine connects to a cell phone and picks up on vocal cues, such as how quickly someone speaks, the amount they interrupt, and whether they use other conversational signals such as repeated "yeahs." The cues are used to measure a speaker's engagement on a scale from 0 to 100.

During calls the device gives its owner messages about his or her performance, displaying notes such as "Don't be a jerk!," "Be a little nicer now," or "Wow, you're a smooth talker."

Anmol Madan, an MIT master's degree student, led the Jerk-O-Meter design with MIT professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland.

"I'm the guy who's not paying attention, who's typing in a keyword or doing several other things, while on the phone," Madan reported during a telephone interview. "So I could relate to it."

Madan's team hopes that the invention can help people improve conversations and relationships, both personal and professional, with those on the other end of the line.

"I think they are sort of tapping into the … fact that the enormous level of frustration that we have nowadays is coming out in our voices," said psychology professor Brian MacWhinney of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "So anything that would help would be perceived as great."

Machine Takes Our Measure

The current prototype of the Jerk-O-Meter monitors several key aspects of phone conversations.

"It measures activity levels, or how often you speak," Madan said. "It also uses mathematical logarithms to measure known stresses and deviations of pitch."

Future versions may become even more precise. They may measure factors such as mirroring, when one speaker shows empathy by adopting the other's voice patterns, and engagement, which monitors how much one person influences the other as they take turns talking.

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