02 Apr 2012, Posted by Hong Zhu in News, 0 Comments
“I urge you to vote for me in Novemeber,” implores two voices that differ only in pitch. As it turns out, people are consistently more likely to vote for the lower-pitched voice. A recent study, co-authored by a political scientist and two Duke biologists, found that both men and women prefer leaders with lower voices. In an email interview, Duke biologist Rindy Anderson spoke to The Chronicle about crafting the study, working with Duke student subjects, and what the findings could mean for society.
The Chronicle: Where did the idea for the research question originally come from?
Rindy Anderson: [co-author] Susan Peters and I are behavioral ecologists that study acoustic communication, mostly in birds, so we’re generally interested in the kinds of cues that vocal signals contain, and how these cues might influence the perceptions of listeners. We’ve been struck by the impression that media broadcasters tend to have low voices, or tend to speak in low voices, and in particular female broadcasters seem to have lower voices than the average woman. So this prompted us to start looking into existing studies on voice pitch, and we found evidence that pitch influences listeners’ perceptions with regard to qualities like attractiveness and social dominance. At the time, no one had applied these findings to candidates and electoral politics, and in particular no one had looked at women’s voices, so we teamed up with a Political Scientist –Casey Klofstad from the University of Miami- to design a study asking whether voice pitch influences electability.
TC: Where you surprised by any of the results?
RA: We find that men are more attentive to vocal cues of other men’s strength and competence than are women. This could be because men with lower voices tend to be physically stronger and have more testosterone, and testosterone is linked to physical and social aggressiveness. So, men may be attending to vocal cues of competitiveness, be it physical or political competition, in other men’s voices. We are still not certain why women didn’t discriminate in a similar way, but we hope to into that question more deeply future research.
TC: What implications might this study have for gender relations?
RA: We found that women with lower voices are perceived as stronger, more trustworthy, and more competent. Because women tend to have higher voices than men, voice pitch could be one of the many different factors that influences gender inequality in leadership roles. At the very least, voice pitch does not appear to counterbalance social norms that are biased against women in leadership positions. It is possible that the optimal voice pitch for a politician is in the male range, but that is a hypothesis that requires testing.
TC: What implications might this study have for real-life settings?
RA: Our results raise the possibility that both men and women with lower voices may have an edge when running for office. However, these findings are based on hypothetical elections conducted in the lab. We need to be careful in interpreting these results and generalizing them to the real world, where elections involve many factors. It remains to be seen whether real elections are influenced by the voice pitch of the candidates, but this is something that we plan to test.
TC: Could you comment on what it was like to collect data from passers-by in the Bryan Center?
RA: Working in the Bryan Center was an excellent experience. People were very interested in the study and asked great questions about it. We were able to get a nice cross-section of the general population as well — students, parents, faculty and staff. Some days and times were easier than others to convince people to sit down and participate, but in the end we were able to get a good number for our study.
TC: How did you enjoy working on a study dealing with politics, a topic that isn’t traditionally thought of as relating to biology?
RA: This was one of the most fun and engaging studies we have been a part of for exactly that reason. None of us could have pulled this study off on our own — it required three people with different experience, knowledge and skills. When scientists from different disciplines come together to ask a question or solve a problem, each bringing their own experience and expertise, good things happen.
TC: In your opinion, what is the importance of this study to the everyday voter/citizen?
RA: Our suggest that perceptions of candidates’ voices are one of the many factors that we consider when selecting leaders. Understanding how physiological qualities affect how a speaker is perceived is important because it helps us understand why we often make snap judgments about candidates. Knowing this can help us understand, and address, various aspects of our sociality, including gender inequality in leadership.