Researchers try to harness technology to help therapists better help struggling couples
By programming a computer to analyze the speech of couples, researchers at the universities of Southern California and Utah could predict whether the relationship would improve, worsen or stay the same.ILLUSTRATION: JUSTIN RENTERIA
The human voice can reveal a great deal. Now, with the help of a computer, it can probably reveal whether your marriage is deteriorating.
By programming a computer to analyze the speech of couples, researchers at the universities of Southern California and Utah could predict whether the relationship would improve, worsen or stay the same. The computerized analysis, which focused entirely on aural qualities such as pitch and intensity, was compared with human assessments that took account of familiar features of the marital landscape, such as blame.
The computer turned out to be able to predict marital improvement or deterioration about as reliably as ratings provided by trained humans—in fact, even a little better.
The work is part of a flurry of research in recent years in which scientists have tried to glean useful information from closely examining therapy patients’ voices, gestures and word choices. The aim is to make talk therapy more effective.
In this case, the scientists worked with video recordings of 134 “chronically distressed couples” who had been married for an average of 10 years and had sought therapy for problems in the relationship. The study focused on three sets of sessions: one before therapy began, another after 26 weeks of therapy and a third after two years of treatment.
The researchers used their computer to rate the recorded voices for 74 acoustic features. These included such familiar ones as loudness but also more esoteric elements such as jitter and shimmer—described by Brian Baucom, one of the scientists, as measures of shakiness. The couples’ videotaped interactions—including words and body language—were also rated for various characteristics by teams of undergraduate psychology students who were extensively trained for the purpose.
Dr. Baucom says that prior research has shown that trained students can do better here than therapists because the students tend to follow the rating manual and rate more consistently for behaviors and feelings such as blame and sadness. Their ratings were then correlated with four possible outcomes from therapy: decline, no change, partial recovery and recovery. These correlations have predictive power, letting researchers anticipate actual outcomes for the couples (which were assessed two years after therapy ended).
But the computer did a bit better across the board in predicting marital changes. In predicting whether a recovery would occur, for instance, the computer achieved nearly 78% accuracy, beating the human ratings by two percentage points.
One big question: Can couples learn—perhaps from a smartphone app—to change their voices in a way that improves their marriage? Perhaps a stand-alone device, placed in the home, could sound an alarm when dialogue takes on troubling tones. Shrikanth S. Narayanan, another scientist who worked on the study, says that it’s conceivable. But the focus for now is simply to harness technology to help therapists do a better job in counseling couples.
“Still Together?: The Role of Acoustic Features in Predicting Marital Outcome,” Md Nasir, Wei Xia, Bo Xiao, Brian Baucom, Shrikanth S. Narayanan, Panayiotis Georgiou, Interspeech 2015 (Sept. 6)