Filled Pause Use and (non)Intelligence

[This post was written for a blog I started in 2007 but discontinued soon after. Since that blog no longer exists and the content is relevant here, I've uploaded it here with its original time stamp.]

Ed Norton (Art Carney) in The HoneymoonersA stock character in much of the entertainment world is the none-too-bright sidekick of a main character. While there are many formulas for this dimwit, one of the most common features in this stereotype is slow speech with lots of long, drawn-out filled pauses. A classic example—perhaps an archetypal example—is Art Carney's Ed Norton (pictured at right) from The Honeymooners. Other examples abound: Edgar Bergen's Mortimer Snerd, Rev. Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd) in Taxi, Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo) in Welcome Back, Kotter, and George Utley (Tom Poston) in Newhart as well as numerous minor characters whose names few would recognize.

While I can laugh at these characters as much as anyone else, I confess that I've always wondered why filled pause use should be seen as somehow correlated with below-average intelligence. It's not difficult to find people who believe that there is a correlation and believe it firmly. Back when I was maintaining the FPRC, I got a message from a man who was a member of Toastmaster's International—an international organization dedicated to helping members improve their public speaking skills. He sent me a list of some "talking points" for public speaking. One point on the list was as follows.

"Um" sounds dumb; "uh" sounds like "duh"!

A few years ago, I was considering a particular textbook for my English as a foreign language class when I found this admonishment:

If you use [filled pauses] too often you sound stupid.

But is there any real evidence that this is true? I mean, has anyone actually done a study to see if there's a correlation between the rate of filled pause use and measures of intelligence? A few years ago I started looking around to see if I could find a connection. The short answer is—I found nothing. I found only one study that actually compares these two things (more on that in a moment). There are some studies that measure the listener's perception of a speaker, but none of these look at intelligence. They do observe that listeners may make other negative judgments about a speaker who has a higher rate of filled pause use: less credible, less truthful, less open, or less confident. But the conclusiveness of even these studies is limited by the fact that participants were explicitly asked to listen to and judge the manner of the speakers. When people are so primed, it does not surprise me that they would easily notice filled pauses and make (negative) judgments about them based on their own prejudices about language production. But we normally don't listen to people with the goal of critiquing their manner of speech; rather, we listen to them in order to understand the message they wish to convey. Thus, when people are paying attention to content, perhaps they don't notice the form as much and therefore don't make these kinds of negative inferences about the speaker. [This hypothesis is dealt with very nicely in Christenfeld, 1995—a paper I intend to discuss in greater detail in a later post.]

The only evidence I have found that could be taken by some as showing a correlation between filled pause use and measures of intelligence is a study by Basil Bernstein, sociologist, who did a series of studies in the 1960s looking at language as a social code. He found no correlation between intelligence and filled pause use. On the other hand, he did find that social class was correlated with filled pause use: Those from higher social classes were more likely to use filled pauses than those from lower social classes. So, if you believe that higher class people are more intelligent (I emphatically do not believe this; but I know there are some who unashamedly believe so, and others who believe so but would never openly admit it), then it seems proper to conclude that all those people who don't use filled pauses are pretty stupid. God help them.

Well, the evidence (or lack thereof) suggests strongly that the idea that frequent filled pause use is evidence of substandard intelligence is just another one of those myths that has developed through popular media. Now, if only the truth could spread through the media as quickly and as easily as the myths...