On Thursday, Nov. 3 in Russell House, University of Iowa Assistant Professor of Political Science and Sociology Bryce J. Dietrich hosted a talk titled “Gender, Power Dynamics and the Supreme Court.” Students and faculty members who attended the lecture were the first beyond Dietrich and his co-authors to see the results of this study.

Dietrich began by showing audience members examples of emotion activation on the House of Representatives floor, showing that language is not just verbal, but also nonverbal, which includes gestures, facial expressions, and vocal characteristics.

“I show [that] vocal pitch changes significantly depending on the speaker and the topic being discussed,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich then explained that there are four primary reasons why paralinguistic cues should be the focal point of social science research. He explained how people cannot fully understand spoken words without these cues, how paralinguistic cues are more difficult to consciously control, how they are interesting in and of themselves, and how people are living in an increasingly audiovisual world.

Furthermore, Dietrich explained, emotional arousal predicts voting and gender dynamics. There are three questions one must ask: What is fundamental frequency, how do we estimate the fundamental frequency, and how is fundamental frequency related to emotional activation?

Dietrich continued to explain that he is most interested in the last question, as vocal characteristics are reflective of emotional arousal. When a person becomes activated emotionally, biological mechanisms are taking place.

“There is increased activity in the cerebral cortex, which triggers changes in muscle tone and increases activities in sweat glands,” he said.

Dietrich then described the research he did for a paper titled “Emotional Arousal Predicts Voting on the U.S. Supreme Court,” which he co-wrote with Assistant Professor Maya Sen and Associate Professor Ryan Enos, both of whom work in the Government Department at Harvard University. They collected audio from 1,173 cases between the years of 1982 and 2014 to test whether emotional arousal predicts judicial decision making by splitting the hour-long files into individual files for each utterance.

“We have 490,564 utterances,” he said. “[They approximate] 2,639 hours.”

Dietrich named several programs one could use to do this, as it may get difficult when speaker overlap becomes involved. He cited LIUM Speaker Diarization and Microsoft API as useful programs when confronting this problem.

“What [Microsoft API] allows you to do is deal with the speaker recognition problem,” he advised audience members.

In the paper, the three co-authors looked at pitch difference.

“We are interested in the difference in vocal pitch toward petitioners versus respondents,” he said. “Vocal pitch is highly predictive of Supreme Justices’ votes.”

Dietrich emphasized the usefulness of studying vocal pitch, as it can predict how consistent swing voters, such as Anthony Kennedy, will vote.

Dietrich then went on to explain his next paper, “Gender and Power Dynamics in Elite Political Discourse: Evidence from the U.S. Supreme Court.” He referenced several findings of other researchers, such as those of Adrienne Hancock and Benjamin Rubin, and Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg.

“Hancock and Rubin found on average, women interrupted men only once, whereas men interrupted women 2.8 times,” he said.

Furthermore, Karpowitz and Mendelberg found that men speak 75 percent of the time.

“[The purpose of this paper is], does this exist within the courtroom?” Dietrich said.

Dietrich shared the results he found in his study.

“Female justices are more likely to get interrupted by male justices,” he said. “When male justices respond to female justices, they are more likely to raise their vocal pitch.”

He also revealed the consequences of these results.

“Over the course of their careers, female justices withdraw from asking questions…they ask fewer and fewer questions every time,” he said. “Female justices lower their voice pitch over time, whereas male justices raise their voice pitch over time…. Men are ‘mansplaining,’ or talking over women….Women are not withdrawing completely, but the number of questions they ask decreases over time.”

Nicole Zalewski ’20 attended the lecture and stated that she had not realized there was such a problem in gender and power dynamics in the Supreme Court, but learned a lot from Dietrich’s study.

“This wasn’t something I ever thought about before,” she said. “It was really interesting to see how Professor Dietrich studied vocal pitch to uncover this issue.…It’s definitely something I’m interested in learning more about now.”

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