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The sound of power: People recognize high-status voices by vocal cues - study

The sound of power: People recognize high-status voices by vocal cues - study
New research suggests that people recognize power when they hear it. Moreover, we tend to alter our voices to appear more powerful.

Published in Psychological Science by a team of researchers from San Diego State University and Colombia Business School last week, the study examines how we use vocal cues to access power status.

In the first part of the study, researchers randomly assigned 161 students to low and high ranking groups and asked them to play specific roles in mock negotiations. High-ranking students were asked to imagine they had the upper hand in the talks, while low-rank students were told they were at a disadvantage.

After analyzing the recordings, the researchers found that those assigned a high power ranking were found to speak in a higher and less variable pitch, (but with increased variations in volume) than those ranked lower.

The results, which were consistent across both genders, suggest that participants’ voices change in accordance with how they perceive their own status.

“Subtle manipulations of power such as simply thinking about a time when you had power can give you a more dynamic voice that’s also in control,” Adam Galinsky, a management professor at Columbia and co-author of the study, was quoted as saying in Forbes.

Margaret Thatcher.(Reuters)

“You can definitely make yourself sound more powerful,” says Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University, one of the study’s co-authors.

In the second half of the study, 40 different undergrads listened to and rated the recordings from the first part. This was based on 12 different measures designed to assess the power level of the speakers. The results suggest that listeners could determine which speakers were more powerful by the sound of their voice. Corroborating the findings of the first experiment, listeners associated higher pitch and increased volume and volume variability with 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,” says Galinsky.

The study, inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s well-documented voice training, sought to investigate the link between power and voice.

“It was quite well known that Thatcher had gone through extensive voice coaching to exude a more authoritative, powerful persona,” said Ko in the study’s release statement. “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.”