Research shows lowering voice pitch increases perceived dominance

By Masaki Sugimoto

A recent study conducted by a University professor could help students succeed not only in their classes, but in the real world, too.

Along with her research team, Joey Cheng, assistant professor of Psychology, found people who lower their voices in the first few utterances of an interaction are perceived as more high-status, more dominant and more influential.

“When people first meet, we see changes that happen in the first couple minutes of their voice pitch that actually tells us something about how much status they’re going to get towards the end of the interaction,” Cheng said.

Cheng and her research team first became interested in piloting this study when questions arose surrounding how humans signal status to each other and what behaviors they do to get status.

A great deal of research has uncovered how tall posture and expansive body displays both tend to be seen as high-status gestures. However, little research had explored other aspects on status such as voice pitch.

“We wanted to go beyond the straightforward question of do people with higher or lower voices tend to get more status,” Cheng said. “We asked a more nuanced question of how do subtle changes in voice pitch that happen when people first meet relate to status outcomes.”

Cheng and researchers conducted two experiments to solve that question.

In the first experiment, subjects were asked a question that yielded a lengthy response. Then, Cheng and her research team used phonetic analysis software to measure the fundamental frequency of the subject’s reactions.

Without first seeing the results of the software and without knowing the study focused on the relationship between vocal pitch and status, outsiders were asked which answers seemed the most dominant.

Observers answered those whose voices went down in pitch rather than up during the first few utterances seemed most dominant.

In the second experiment, participants listened to recordings of an individual saying three consecutive sentences. The recording was technologically changed to either increase or decrease the voice pitch throughout the three sentences.

Consistent with the first experiment, the observers recognized the recordings manipulated to decrease the voice pitch as more powerful and influential.

The results Cheng and her research team found matched their initial hypothesis.

“We found what we predicted and that doesn’t always happen so we were pretty excited,” she said. “Something about lower voices seems to reliably tell us about people’s dominance and status.”

There’s evidence that some sort of psychological feedback boosts confidence when individuals speak in a lower tone, too.

“There’s a case to be made for lowering your voice when going into interviews and giving presentations,” Cheng said.

Mardia Bishop, director of public speaking instruction at the University, said raising voice pitch typically happens when people aren’t breathing correctly due to nervousness.

“When we are nervous we are not breathing properly and we put a lot of tension in the throat area and the rest of our body,” she said. “We tighten up all those muscles so our vocal cords tighten up too, and consequently, our voice gets higher.”

To combat this, Bishop suggests several tactics to boost confidence and to improve performance during a presentation or an interview besides lowering voice pitch.

“What I strongly encourage people to do is breathe when they’re speaking,” Bishop said. “Present based off an outline so you’re memorizing the message you want to convey instead of memorizing just words, and practice the speech out loud.”

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