Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Speaking Science: To lead, aim low...with your voice

If your voice is low, the votes are yours. That's essentially what Casey Klofstad found out last year, when the University of Miami political scientist teamed up with a few biologists to analyze how differently-pitched voices might affect an candidate's electability. In their experiment, they found that both men and women preferred to cast their fictional ballots for low-pitched voices saying, "I urge you to vote for me in November."

We've known for a while that listeners tend to think deeper, low-pitch voices sound more competent and trustworthy, and the political experiment seemed to bear that out. But men, of course, are both more likely to have low-pitch voices and hold political office. So Klofstad wondered whether this preference would hold when the office in question was one typically associated with women.

In the United States, the president of a school's parent-teacher organization and school board member are two such offices. (About 77% of PTO members nationwide are women, for instance.) Klofstad and communications researcher Rindy Anderson of Duke University decided to run the pitch experiment again, telling their laboratory listeners that the candidates they heard were vying for these traditionally women-held offices.

They manipulated the recorded voices of men and women, so that the experiment's voters would hear each candidate speaking a pair of "vote for me" lines--one high and one low. After being told about the office the "voices" were seeking, the voters were asked choose their favorite candidate out of each pair.

The winners? Well, the results looked much like those from earlier studies. Men and women preferred women candidates with deeper voices, and men preferred male candidates with deeper voices. Women voters, however, didn't seem to care whether the male candidate voices they heard were high or low. Klofstad and Anderson concluded that when it comes to the link between leadership and voice, the office doesn't matter so much. If you speak low, you sound like a leader--even if your leadership position is one that is associated with high-voiced women.

It could be, Klofstad says, that listeners associate women's lower-pitch voices with age, since most women develop deeper voices as they grow older. In this case, women seeking to lead may benefit from having a lower-pitched voice because it makes them sound more experienced, along with sounding more masculine.

That doesn't explain why women don't seem to care how deep-voiced a man is when he's running for PTO president, although Klofstad and Anderson have some ideas on that one. "Our findings hint at the notion that while men have a consistent preference for masculinized leaders," they say, "women may desire men with more feminine qualities in feminine leadership roles."

In any case, there's not much a woman can do to change her voice in this way, Klofstad says. Women have a smaller larynx (the "voice box") and smaller vocal cords than men, "As with the strings of a guitar, longer and thicker vocal folds produce a lower voice, while shorter and thinner vocal folds produce a higher voice," he explains.

It is possible to make some adjustments within the limits set by biology. "The example I like to use from the political world is the story of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady," Klofstad says. "A critical step in her rise to power was vocal training." But he admits that it's difficult to say whether a candidate who fine-tunes her voice's pitch could actually win more votes, since so many other factors play in voting choices. Think we'll know the answer by the 2016 campaign?

(Freelance science writer Becky Ham contributed this post to our Speaking Science series on the research behind public speaking.)

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