Why Deep-Voiced Politicians Get More Votes

The science of pitch-perfect politics

Posted Sep 11, 2018

speech-icon-2797263_1280 Pixabaymcmurryjulie
Source: speech-icon-2797263_1280 Pixabaymcmurryjulie

In the run-up to the 2016 election, our living rooms were filled with the voices of politicians arguing, debating, and pleading for votes. But of all these voices, one received far more attention than the rest: Hillary Clinton’s.

Nicknamed “Shrillary,” Hillary was criticized for having a voice that was unappealing, shrill and too high-pitched. Former RNC chair Michael Steele complained she was “going up every octave with every word.” Comedian Howard Stern even created a commercial for an imaginary app that lowered Hillary’s voice to a deeper, more seductive tone.

Setting aside the issue of sexism in the debate over Hillary’s voice (After all, some said Bernie Sanders’ voice sounds like the old Ant and the Aardvark cartoon, but no one seemed to care), what it reveals is how important vocal pitch is in choosing a leader. Sure, we like to think that we pick our presidents based on their qualifications and policies, but let’s face it. Little things like physical attractiveness, clothing, and yes, voice pitch, really do matter.

But why? What is it about a candidate’s voice that makes us swoon? Are we really that attuned to something that superficial?

A bunch of studies, conducted both in the lab and on real-world election data, shows that we are more likely to vote for political candidates who have deeper voices. But this isn’t just because we want to hear the State of the Union address delivered with the sultry tone of Morgan Freeman. It’s because we use voice pitch to infer other qualities that we are looking for in a world leader. A deep voice implies strength, dominance, and masculinity. Men with deep voices have higher testosterone and higher testosterone is associated with greater assertiveness and virility. So when we hear a male candidate with a deep voice, we assume he holds these qualities. This is why, over and over, research shows that male candidates with deep voices are judged to be more competent and in turn receive more votes.

But what about a female candidate? Well, that’s where things get a bit tricky. Women naturally have higher-pitched voices than men. So whereas a low-pitched voice is a sign of masculinity, a high-pitched voice is a sign of femininity. But here’s the catch—politics is still perceived to be a masculine sport. We want leaders who exude strength and toughness. This means that when it comes to politics, even women are expected to have deep voices. In fact, most of the research shows that having a deep voice is even more important for female candidates than male candidates, precisely because it is one of the few physical cues a woman can utilize to make herself appear more masculine. No wonder why Margaret Thatcher purposely dropped the register of her voice during her term as British Prime Minister.

But maybe we’re jumping the gun here. Maybe deep voices do actually convey better leadership abilities. People with deep voices do have higher testosterone so it could be that a deep voice is an accurate indication of strong leadership abilities. Well, it turns out researchers have explored this question too and the answer is a big, fat no. For example, one study examined the power ranking for members of U.S. Congress. Although voters preferred the Congress members with lower voices, those members were not found to be more effective legislators or speakers compared to their higher-pitched comrades.

Okay, so although voice pitch is not actually indicative of leadership ability, it still has a big influence on how we vote. The lower the voice, the higher the votes. But here’s another important question: Do we all get swayed by a candidate with a Barry White voice? Or are some of us looking for a candidate that’s a bit more Barry Manilow?

To answer this question, a team of researchers examined if Republicans and Democrats differ in their vocal preferences. First, they had a group of registered voters listen to a five pairs of voices. Half listened to pairs of female voices. The other half listened to pairs of male voices. For each pair, one voice was higher in tone and one was lower. After hearing the two pairs, the respondents just had to decide which of the two they would vote for.

Importantly, in every case the voice spoke the identical politically neutral statement (check out the audio clip below to hear some examples). No other information was given, so all the voters could go on was the quality of the voice.

So what did they find?

When it came to judging the male candidate, Republicans voted more for the candidate with the deeper voice (see graph below). They want their leaders to sound strong and dominant. This makes some sense, given that prior research indicates Republicans are more attuned to threats and more focused on political policies that ensure safety and security. Instead, Democrats showed no voting preference at all between the two types of voices. This is probably because liberals place less emphasis on safety and strength and more emphasis on other qualities like equality and diplomacy.

And what about female political candidates? Do we see the same pattern?

Actually, no. When it comes to female politicians, here is one place where conservatives and liberals agree (Wow—almost didn’t think that was possible!). Both Republicans and Democrats were more likely to vote for the female candidates with deeper voices.

study graph
Source: study graph

Now when it comes to actual elections, voters have far more information to go on than just someone’s voice. Because of that, you may think that voice pitch has little impact on real-world voting, but you’d be wrong. Although the influence of voice pitch is certainly weaker in real elections than in lab studies, there is still a noteworthy impact. So even though it isn’t the only piece of information voters use to cast their vote, it is one important piece.

This is all something candidates (and voters) should keep in mind as we lead into the 2018 mid-term elections. As much as we don’t want to admit it, vocal tone matters. If candidates (especially those that are Republican or female) want to be perceived as competent, they may want to practice their Barry White impersonation.

To learn more about the psychology of politics, check out my “Red Brain, Blue Brain” blog at www.redbrainbluebrain.com