"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Voice may reveal who has clout

Nov. 24, 2014
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Be­ing in a po­si­tion of pow­er can change the sound of your voice, and lis­ten­ers of­ten pick up on that to fig­ure out who is really in charge, new re­search finds.

We tend to fo­cus on our words when we want to come across as pow­erful, but the find­ings sug­gest acous­tic cues are al­so im­por­tant. Mark­ers of more pow­erful po­si­tion, for ex­am­ple, may in­clude a higher and louder voice.

“Whether it’s par­ents at­tempt­ing to as­sert au­thor­ity over un­ruly chil­dren, hag­gling be­tween a car sales­man and cus­tom­er, or ne­gotia­t­ions be­tween heads of states, the sound of the voices in­volved may pro­foundly de­ter­mine the out­come of those in­ter­ac­tions,” said lead re­searcher Sei Jin Ko of San Die­go State Uni­vers­ity in Ca­li­for­nia.

It was form­er U.K. prime min­is­ter Mar­ga­ret That­cher who in­spired the re­search. “It was quite well known that That­cher had gone through ex­ten­sive voice coach­ing to ex­ude a more au­thoritative, pow­erful per­sona,” ex­plained Ko. “We wanted to ex­plore how some­thing so fun­da­men­tal as pow­er might elic­it changes in the way a voice sounds, and how these situa­t­ional vo­cal changes im­pact the way lis­ten­ers per­ceive and be­have to­ward the speak­ers.”

Ko, along with Mel­o­dy Sadler of San Die­go State and Ad­am Galin­sky of Co­lum­bia Busi­ness School, de­signed two stud­ies to find out. The findings were pub­lished Nov. 20 online in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

In a first ex­pe­ri­ment, the investigators recorded 161 col­lege stu­dents read­ing a pas­sage aloud; this first re­cord­ing cap­tured their voice be­fore any par­tic­u­lar high-or-low pow­er sta­tus was ev­i­dent. The par­ti­ci­pants were then ran­domly as­signed a high- or low-sta­tus role in a ne­gotia­t­ion game.

Stu­dents as­signed to a “high” rank were told to go in­to the ne­gotia­t­ion im­ag­in­ing that they ei­ther had a strong al­ter­na­tive of­fer, val­u­a­ble in­side in­forma­t­ion, or high sta­tus in the work­place, or they were asked to re­call an ex­perience in which they had pow­er be­fore the ne­gotia­t­ion started. Low-rank stu­dents, on the oth­er hand, were told to im­ag­ine they had ei­ther a weak of­fer, no in­side in­forma­t­ion, or low work­place sta­tus, or they were asked to re­call an ex­perience in which they lacked pow­er.

The stu­dents then read a sec­ond pas­sage aloud, as if they were lead­ing off ne­gotia­t­ions with their im­ag­i­nary ad­ver­sary, and their voices were recorded. Eve­ry­one read the same open­ing, al­low­ing the re­search­ers to ex­am­ine acous­tics while hold­ing the speech con­tent the same.

The re­search­ers found that the voices of stu­dents as­signed to high-pow­er roles tended to go up in pitch, be­come less var­i­a­ble in pitch, and be­come more var­i­a­ble in loud­ness than the oth­ers’ voices.

“A­maz­ingly, pow­er af­fect­ed our par­ti­ci­pants’ voices in al­most the ex­act same way that That­cher’s voice changed af­ter her vo­cal train­ing,” said Galin­sky.

And the stu­dents’ vo­cal cues did­n’t go un­no­ticed. A sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment with a sep­a­rate group of col­lege stu­dents re­vealed that lis­ten­ers, who had no knowl­edge of the first ex­pe­ri­ment, were able to pick up on these pow­er-related vo­cal cues to de­ter­mine who did and did not have pow­er: Lis­ten­ers ranked speak­ers who had been as­signed to the high-rank group as more likely to en­gage in high-pow­er be­hav­iors, and they were able to cat­e­go­rize wheth­er a speak­er had high or low rank with con sidera­ble ac­cu­ra­cy.

In line with the vo­cal changes ob­served in the first ex­pe­ri­ments, lis­ten­ers tended to as­so­ci­ate high­er pitch and voices that var­ied in loud­ness with high-pow­er be­hav­iors. They al­so as­so­ci­ated louder voices with high­er pow­er.

“These find­ings sug­gest that lis­ten­ers are quite per­cep­tive to these sub­tle varia­t­ions in vo­cal cues and they use these cues to de­cide who is in charge,” said Galin­sky.


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

[../index-contents.html]

Being in a position of power can change the sound of your voice, and listeners often pick up on that to figure out who is really in charge, new research finds. We tend to focus on our words when we want to come across as powerful, but the findings published in the journal Psychological Science suggest acoustic cues are also important. One marker of a more powerful position, for example, may be a lower voice. “Whether it’s parents attempting to assert authority over unruly children, haggling between a car salesman and customer, or negotiations between heads of states, the sound of the voices involved may profoundly determine the outcome of those interactions,” said lead researcher Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University. It was former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher who inspired the research. “It was quite well known that Thatcher had gone through extensive voice coaching to exude a more authoritative, powerful persona,” explained Ko. “We wanted to explore how something so fundamental as power might elicit changes in the way a voice sounds, and how these situational vocal changes impact the way listeners perceive and behave toward the speakers.” Ko, along with Melody Sadler of San Diego State and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School, designed two studies to find out. In a first experiment, they recorded 161 college students reading a passage aloud; this first recording captured their voice before any particular high-or-low power status was evident. The participants were then randomly assigned a high- or low-status role in a negotiation game. Students assigned to a “high” rank were told to go into the negotiation imagining that they either had a strong alternative offer, valuable inside information, or high status in the workplace, or they were asked to recall an experience in which they had power before the negotiation started. Low-rank students, on the other hand, were told to imagine they had either a weak offer, no inside information, or low workplace status, or they were asked to recall an experience in which they lacked power. The students then read a second passage aloud, as if they were leading off negotiations with their imaginary adversary, and their voices were recorded. Everyone read the same opening, allowing the researchers to examine acoustics while holding the speech content constant across all participants. Comparing the first and second recordings, the researchers found that the voices of students assigned to high-power roles tended to go up in pitch, become less variable in pitch, and become more variable in loudness than the others’ voices. “Amazingly, power affected our participants’ voices in almost the exact same way that Thatcher’s voice changed after her vocal training,” said Galinsky. And the students’ vocal cues didn’t go unnoticed. A second experiment with a separate group of college students revealed that listeners, who had no knowledge of the first experiment, were able to pick up on these power-related vocal cues to determine who did and did not have power: Listeners ranked speakers who had been assigned to the high-rank group as more likely to engage in high-power behaviors, and they were able to categorize whether a speaker had high or low rank with considerable accuracy. In line with the vocal changes observed in the first experiments, listeners tended to associate higher pitch and voices that varied in loudness with high-power behaviors. They also associated louder voices with higher power. “These findings suggest that listeners are quite perceptive to these subtle variations in vocal cues and they use these cues to decide who is in charge,” said Galinsky.