First impressions and last resorts: how listeners adjust to speaker variability.
Perceptual theories must explain how perceivers extract meaningful information from a continuously variable physical signal. In the case of speech, the puzzle is that little reliable acoustic invariance seems to exist. We tested the hypothesis that speech-perception processes recover invariants not about the signal, but rather about the source that produced the signal. Findings from two manipulations suggest that the system learns those properties of speech that result from idiosyncratic characteristics of the speaker; the same properties are not learned when they can be attributed to incidental factors. We also found evidence for how the system determines what is characteristic: In the absence of other information about the speaker, the system relies on episodic order, representing those properties present during early experience as characteristic of the speaker. This "first-impressions" bias can be overridden, however, when variation is an incidental consequence of a temporary state (a pen in the speaker's mouth), rather than characteristic of the speaker.