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Utterly Blirtatious!: Your verbal reactions can affect personal relationships and health


Do you find words tumbling out of your mouth before you really know what you are saying? Or are you the kind of person who takes so long to say something that others stop listening? It might be time to check your “blirt” level.

The Brief Loquaciousness and Interpersonal Responsiveness Test (BLIRT), developed by Dr. William Swann and Peter Rentfrow in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, measures how quickly and effusively people orally respond to others.

Dr. William Swann

Dr. William Swann

“Blirtatiousness has more to do with the rapidity and number of people’s verbal responses rather than the specific content,” Swann said. Because high blirters respond quickly and effusively to others, they are seen as more attentive and more likely to meet the needs of the listener.

“High blirters make themselves known and understood much more quickly than do low blirters,” he said. “An advantage of being a high blirter is that you are understood more rapidly than are low blirters and as a result you are more apt to get your needs met. So, not only do you come across as more socially skilled but you are also known. And that’s good unless you have something you don’t particularly want others to know about.”

BLIRT levels do not appear to be related to intelligence or gender, but not surprisingly, BLIRT levels among some occupations are rather predictable. One study compared the blirtatiousness of car salespeople and librarians. As expected, the salespeople had a significantly higher score on the BLIRT.

The researchers have conducted several studies measuring how people respond to high and low blirters as well as how differing BLIRT levels can affect intimate relationships.

In one study, the researchers looked at the classroom success of high blirters versus low blirters. They found that classmates of high blirters were impressed with them early in the semester, but those opinions waned later.

Study where confederate is a young woman who talks loudly on her cell phone throughout the experiment.  Participant tries to concentrate on her work.

Several studies pitted a “blirtatious” confederate against a participant attempting to concentrate on an assignment. Reaction of the participant could be predicted to an extent based on the BLIRT score.

“Early in the semester, while impressions are first being formed, high blirters may have the advantage because they seem more engaged, intelligent and competent than their low blirter classmates,” Swann said. “But that advantage fades for two reasons. First, as low blirters become more comfortable in the classroom they may say more than at the outset, and second, because blirtatiousness is not associated with intelligence their classmates come to realize that the exuberance of some high blirters can exceed their insightfulness.”

This early likeability of high blirters was only maintained if the students’ grades were high, but over the semester classmates’ attitudes became markedly more negative toward those high blirters with low grades.

Two additional studies examined how well BLIRT scores could predict behavior and what physiological changes occurred when high and low blirters were antagonized. In both studies, after completing the BLIRT, a participant was placed in a room with a confederate and asked to draw several pictures depicting emotions associated with childhood events. In one of the studies, the confederate was a woman who talked loudly on her cell phone throughout the experiment. In the other a young man threw paper wads and made obnoxious comments to the participant. During the experiment, blood pressure was monitored every five minutes to measure any changes.

In both experiments, participants’ BLIRT scores predicted how they reacted to the confederate’s annoying behavior. High blirters were much more likely to verbally react to the confederate, but they also generally maintained a lower blood pressure. In contrast, low blirters were more likely to minimize comments, but their blood pressure was higher.

“In the study with the woman on the phone, high blirters were more likely to say something to the confederate but stayed calm,” Swann said. “Low blirters remained quiet while their physiological systems slipped into overdrive. In the one with the obnoxious man, high blirters were more likely to be amused and draw the confederate into a conversation. The low blirters in that study withdrew and became visibly disgruntled and highly aroused.

Participant reacts to the confederate's annoying behavior.  Participant looks over her shoulder at the woman talking loudly on her cell phone.

Low blirters and high blirters experienced different levels of antagonism and physiological change. High blirters were most likely to react to the confederate, but they also maintained lower blood pressure.

“The blood pressure of the high blirter may go up a little bit at the beginning, but then it goes right back down,” he said. “People ask me which is better to be, high or low, and I can’t really tell you. But from the perspective of what’s going on physiologically in response to conflict I can say it’s better to be a high blirter and get the message out. If you suppress your feelings and say nothing you end up feeling constant anger.”

Comparisons of BLIRT scores in heterosexual couples were examined in “The Precarious Couple Effect: Verbally inhibited men + critical, disinhibited women = bad chemistry,” a study by Swann, Rentfrow and Dr. Sam Gosling, also of the university’s Department of Psychology.

They found lower relationship satisfaction for both partners when the man was more verbally inhibited than the woman—that is when the man was a low blirter and his partner was a high blirter—than when both partners were equal on the BLIRT scale or when the man was a high blirter with a low blirter woman. But the real difference came when they examined the “precarious couple effect.”

“Relationships in which the woman is more blirtatious than the man are fine if the woman is accepting of the man,” Swann said. “They run into trouble, though, when the woman is highly critical, because her blirtatiousness amplifies her criticalness and this sours the relationship. Interestingly, the gender of the high and low blirter is critical in that the criticalness of men does not undermine relationship satisfaction when the man is more blirtatious than the woman.”

Blirtatiousness does seem to amplify other characteristics, good and bad. High blirters risk that poor personality traits, such as gruffness, insensitivity and tactlessness, will be much more apparent than low blirters.

“High blirters can’t help themselves from talking—they need to talk,” Swann said. “Some of us have things to say and some of us don’t, or more precisely some of us have intelligent things to say and some of us don’t. The problem with high blirters is that they can’t keep themselves from saying it.”

Robin Gerrow

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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