A booming “ho, ho, ho” is one of the inescapable sounds of this festive time of year. We’ve become accustomed to the rich voice of Santa bidding people a Merry Christmas, not the squeaky voice of one of his diminutive elf helpers.
The voice of a speaker conveys a lot of information to listeners. Generally, voice pitch (“highness” versus “lowness”) influences interpersonal power and deference. More specifically, voice pitch is indicative of the speaker’s emotional state (e.g., excitement or fear). Further, both men and women rate men with lower-pitched voices as more attractive. Men with masculine, low-pitched voices are perceived as more physically and socially dominant. For women, voice quality affects mate choices. Amazingly, both sexes are even fairly accurate in predicting the upper body strength of males based only on hearing their voices. And these effects are not limited to humans as “voice” pitch in non-human animals is associated with physical dominance.
These effects manifest themselves in many ways. For instance, in sports competitions (as well as romantic competitions), males who believe they are physically dominant over their opponent lower their voice pitch when talking to that opponent, while males who believe they are physically subordinate do the opposite, they raise their voices.
What about political voices?
The voices of political leaders also convey a great deal of information. For example, politicians with lower, more masculine voices are rated more positively than their less throaty counter-parts.
And this can translate into actual votes. In one study researchers analyzed audio tapes of presidential debates from 19 US presidential elections between 1960 and 2000 and found that the candidates with the lower vocal pitch won the popular vote in each of the elections they analyzed (yes, “popular” vote is important because, for example, in 2000 Gore, the candidate with the lower-pitch voice, did win the popular vote but not the election).
These effects have also been found in experimental studies that show people are more likely to associate deep-voiced political candidates with positive political traits (e.g., leadership, trustworthiness, and intelligence), and they are more likely to prefer to vote for candidates with lower-pitched voices. Interestingly, one study found people expect candidates with higher-pitched voices to be more likely to be involved in a government scandal.
How about more “feminine” leadership positions?
Contrary to what political scientists seem to think, there are other leadership positions than US president and Congress. One recent study looked at the effects of voice pitch on people’s support for candidates for offices more often associated with women: president of the school board and parent-teacher association (PTA). Like previous research, people tended to prefer candidates with more masculine voices, but the results were nuanced. For these lower-profile positions, the candidate (male and female) with the deeper voice was preferred except in the case of male candidates and female voters, who did not distinguish between the male candidates in terms of voice.
Ho, ho, humbug?
We like to think our votes are driven by reasoned policy preferences, but they also are undoubtedly influenced by a number of seemingly superficial factors. In evolutionary terms, though, these factors may be significant. Leaders of groups can make a difference in an individual’s survival and reproduction. If characteristics like voice pitch signal a candidate’s potential to lead, as some of this research suggests in terms such as leadership, trustworthiness, intelligence, and social dominance, then these factors may not be trivial after all.
Don’t worry, Santa, you appear to be a safe incumbent among your elf constituents for generations to come.
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For more information see:
Klofstad, C. A., R. C. Anderson, & S. Peters. 2012. “Sounds Like a Winner: Voice Pitch Influences Perception of Leadership Capacity in Both Men and Women.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279(1738): 2698-2704.
Tigue et al. 2012. “Voice Pitch Influences Voting Behavior.” Evolution and Human Behavior 33: 210-216.