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Study shows correlation between vocal pitch, social dominance

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Study shows correlation between vocal pitch, social dominance

Professor Cheng's research suggests that people with a lower voice pitch can be more dominant.

Professor Cheng's research suggests that people with a lower voice pitch can be more dominant.

Portrait of Joey Cheng

Professor Cheng's research suggests that people with a lower voice pitch can be more dominant.

Portrait of Joey Cheng

Portrait of Joey Cheng

Professor Cheng's research suggests that people with a lower voice pitch can be more dominant.

By Madalyn Velisaris, Staff Writer

People who speak with a lower pitch are considered more assertive and are deemed more powerful in society, whereas people with a higher pitched voice are viewed as less powerful, according to an experiment.

The experiment is conducted by Joey Cheng, assistant professor in LAS, and it demonstrates the effects of voice pitches on how dominant one may seem in society.

According to a recently published article in BBC, her experiment required four to seven participants to explain and participate in labeling an astronaut’s most needed items to survive a disaster on the moon. When the group portion was over, Cheng privately asked each participant to rank each member’s dominance and to describe the hierarchy of the group.

Cheng found people tend to quickly change the pitch of their voices during the first few minutes of the conversation. These pitch changes later determined their ranking in the group.

The results of the experiment concluded those who spoke at a lower pitch are seen as the more dominant people in the group.

“For both men and women, the people who had lowered their pitch ended up with a higher social rank and were considered to be more dominant in the group, while the people who had raised their pitch were considered to be more submissive and had a lower social rank,” according to the BBC article.

Like humans, animals change their pitches to assert dominance in a group setting, Cheng said. Example of things that animals change their pitch for is to scare off other animals and to mate.

Cheng said she was fascinated to find those who appeared more dominant tend to lower their pitch over time from the start of the conversation during the experiment.

As a follow-up to the experiment, Cheng used a software to change the pitch of people talking to see if their dominance level in the group would change. She gave participants a higher and lower pitch version of the recordings to listen to and asked them which version the person appeared more interested in gaining power and status.

Cheng found the lower version voice pitch recordings were viewed as belonging to someone who is more interested in gaining the status of power, according to participants.

Inversely, Cheng found the rising pitch was more deferential and more submissive.

In society, many high-ranking people in companies tend to hire speech coaches to learn to speak at a lower pitch when they are in a position of authority and to seem more assertive.  

“A lot of CEOs, or people who are higher up in management, many of them actually employ people like speech coaches … one of the first things that they advise their clients is to lower the pitch of their voice when they talk,” she said.

Currently, Cheng is working on the early stages of a new research that looks at how people change their voice pitches when they are negotiating with others.

In the new research, she is comparing the levels of voice pitch with how good a person is at negotiating.

“This is completely relevant in terms of thinking about like real world applications of how to become a better negotiator. It could well be that, what we’re interested in testing, whether it could be the case that speaking in a lower voice might actually help you,” Cheng said.

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