Repost: Voice may reveal who has clout

Yesterday I blogged a link to Richard Mann’s Radio Reflections which he not only presented, but produced as well.  So it seems fitting that today I should repost a report on some fascinating research, much of it done in the UK, on how our voices reflect social status and power — and perhaps why Margaret Thatcher was able to lead so effectively.

 

Voice May Reveal Who Has Clout
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.

 

 

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