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At Wimbledon, Grunts May Separate Winners from Losers

Lower pitched vocalization conveys higher rank, both on and off the court.

Source: pathdoc/Shutterstock

"Talk low, talk slow, and don't say too much," were the words of wisdom John Wayne used to sum up his use of lower pitched vocalization to project an unflappable and invincible screen image in Westerns such as True Grit. Recently, there’s been a resurgence of clinical studies that reaffirm the correlation between the pitch of someone’s voice and his or her perceivable aura of dominance and/or hierarchic rank in both sport and life.

The first recent vocal-pitch study, “Perceived Differences in Social Status Between Speaker and Listener Affect the Speaker's Vocal Characteristics,” was published June 14 in the journal PLOS ONE. This study found that men and women both tend to raise the pitch of their voice when speaking to someone they perceive to be of higher social status.

The second new study, "Tennis Grunts Communicate Acoustic Cues to Sex and Contest Outcome," was published July 4 in Animal Behaviour. This study reported that tennis players who grunted in a lower pitch tended to prevail in matches against opponents who were grunting in a higher pitch. The researchers note that tennis grunts are nonverbal human vocalizations produced in competitive interactions that convey static and dynamic information much like nonhuman mammal calls.

It appears that the pitch of someone’s grunting could create what sports psychologists call preconceived “placebo expectations” of an outcome being positive or negative, that have the power to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of victory or defeat. These type of placebo expectations can be part of a winning formula or a subconscious form of self-sabotage.

The good news is: As part of a psychological and physiological placebo effect, it’s possible that by making a conscious effort to lower the pitch of your voice (or tennis court grunts) you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of actually becoming top of the list by projecting the aura of being "A-number-one and king of the hill."

"The bravest thing you can do when you are not brave is to profess courage and act accordingly." —Corra Harris

The latest findings on lower pitched vocalization corroborate pioneering research from 2012 which found that lowering the pitch of your voice can make someone feel more powerful. This paper, "Lowering the Pitch of Your Voice Makes You Feel More Powerful and Think More Abstractly," was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In this study, an international team of researchers coached male and female university students to speak in a lower pitch while reading a script. Regardless of initial voice pitch, participants self-reported that they felt more powerful and in control when speaking in a lower pitch. Notably, those who spoke in a lower-pitched voice were also perceived as more powerful by others.

In 2016, another paper on the power of lower vocal pitch, “Listen, Follow Me: Dynamic Vocal Signals of Dominance Predict Emergent Social Rank in Humans,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. This study found that lowering the pitch of your voice in the first few moments of a conversation made both men and women seem more dominant. Speaking in a lower pitch also made it easier for someone to influence others. The opposite was true if someone's pitch went up in the first few moments of a conversation.

Lead author of this study, Joey Cheng, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described the findings in a statement:

"What's really fascinating about status is that regardless of which groups, you look at and what culture and in what context, what inevitably happens is that people divide themselves into leaders and followers, and there's a hierarchy that's involved. Our study adds to the evidence that humans, like many other animals, use their voices to signal and assert dominance over others."

As mentioned earlier, these findings dovetail with the recent study by researchers from the University of Stirling who reported that both men and women tend to speak in a higher-pitched voice towards someone they view as having a higher rank on the professional or social hierarchical ladder. Interestingly, the Stirling researchers also found that if someone believed he or she was on equal footing with someone, he or she would continue speaking in a lower tone, even when conversing with a person of high social rank.

Additionally, the researchers identified that study participants who believed others looked up to them—and valued that individual's opinions—didn’t modulate the pitch of their speaking voice in response to someone else’s rank. The researchers hypothesize that an unwavering vocal pitch could be a signal to onlookers that someone is self-confident and in control when compared to those who chit-chat in a higher pitch when conversing with so-called "social elites."

Wimbledon Players' Grunts May Separate the Winners from the Losers

Taken together, the previous research on the power and influence of speaking in a lower-pitch voice in various social circumstances creates a valuable knowledge base for interpreting the July 2017 study on the pitch of professional tennis players' grunts during dozens of matches by University of Sussex psychologists.

Wikipedia/Creative Commons
Jimmy Connors (pictured here in 1978) is considered by many to be one of the original "grunt creators" in the sport of tennis.
Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

For this study, Jordan Raine—who is also captain of the Sussex tennis team—collaborated with mammal communication experts Professor David Reby and Kasia Pisanski. The researchers analyzed television footage of 50 matches with 30 of the world’s top-ranked male and female tennis players. Then, Raine and his colleagues monitored the “fundamental frequency” (also known as pitch) of all the grunts that players made throughout various tennis matches. The correlation between lower pitched vocalizations and dominating a tennis match was significant. In a statement, Raine described the findings: "This suggests that the shift in pitch is not due to short-term changes in scoreboard dominance, but instead, may reflect longer term physiological or psychological factors that may manifest even before the match. These factors could include previous encounters, form, world ranking, fatigue, and injuries."

The Sussex researchers found that the pitch of someone’s grunt could be used to predict the winner or loser of a match long before the scoreboard reflected who had the upper hand. This suggests that tennis grunts may provide some type of window into a tennis player “internal state” during the match, according to the researchers.

David Reby, whose previous research on fundamental frequency includes identifying the connection between voice pitch and sexual attraction in mammals, noted: "As with other mammal calls, the acoustic structure of human grunts contains information that may help us to infer contest outcome." If you are currently tuning into Wimbledon (July 3-July 16) on TV, perk up your ears for the high or low pitch of various players' grunts. Can you predict the winners and losers based on lower and higher pitched grunts?

Co-author Kasia Pisanski, who studies how, when, and why humans alter their voice pitch, concluded: "Future research is set to look at whether other human vocalizations, such as aggressive roars and fear screams, convey further clues about the evolution of human vocal behavior."

Björn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors Circa 1978: To Grunt or Not to Grunt?

As a young tennis player in the 1970s, I idolized Björn Borg for his grace under pressure and his charismatic, cool-headed “water off a duck’s back” Swedish demeanor. Nothing ever seemed to ruffle his feathers. And he was notoriously laconic. In many ways, Borg gave off the aura of being cut from the same cloth as John Wayne. His mystique and formidability were inherently linked to the fact that he 'talked low, slow, and didn't say too much.'

That being said, the video below illustrates how tennis legend Jimmy Connors used a low-pitch grunt as a nonverbal human vocalization to assert his dominance in a mythic showdown with Björn Borg at the 1978 U.S Open. Connors emits a bounty of acoustic cues that he is going to win the match as he grunts his way to victory. This video serves as a timeless "Exhibit A" for the latest study by Raine et al. on the psychophysiological power of visceral grunts.

Through the lens of psychophysiology, Jimmy Connors' unflinching habit of bouncing the ball exactly four times as he exhales slowly before every serve—and then takes a quick inhale followed by the rapid aspiration of a forceful grunt—seems to me like a diaphragmatic technique that squirts out vagusstuff (vagus substance) and calms his nerves. The grunts also appear to synchronize the rhythm of his game with the milieu intérieur (environment within) of his autonomic nervous system. Watching the above video clip complements all of the latest research on the power of lower-pitch vocalization and is like a time capsule full of many valuable clues for how speaking or grunting in a low pitch can give you the upper hand both on and off the court.


Leongómez, Juan David, Viktoria R. Mileva, Anthony C. Little, and S. Craig Roberts. "Perceived differences in social status between speaker and listener affect the speaker's vocal characteristics." PloS One (2017): e0179407. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0179407

Raine, Jordan, Kasia Pisanski, and David Reby. "Tennis grunts communicate acoustic cues to sex and contest outcome." Animal Behaviour (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.06.022

Stel, Mariëlle, Eric van Dijk, Pamela K. Smith, Wilco W. van Dijk, and Farah M. Djalal. "Lowering the pitch of your voice makes you feel more powerful and think more abstractly." Social Psychological and Personality Science 3, no. 4 (2012): 497-502. DOI:

Joey T. Cheng, Jessica L. Tracy, Simon Ho, Joseph Henrich. "Listen, follow me: Dynamic vocal signals of dominance predict emergent social rank in humans." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2016; 145 (5): 536 DOI: 10.1037/xge0000166

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