Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in the early phase of her political career, struggled to be taken seriously. In an attempt to project authority she cultivated the image of the “Iron Lady”, lowering the pitch of her voice to fit in with her male colleagues in the House of Commons.
Thatcher went on to win three general elections, but it’s impossible to say whether her resonant tones were the decisive factor in her victories (soon-to-be former PM Theresa May also seems to affect a deeper voice, with rather less success). It is also unclear whether lowering the voice is a common tactic used by those who wish to sound more authoritative, and if the tactic even works.
Piotr Sorokowski, Katarzyna Pisanski, and an international team of psychologists recently set out to answer these questions. Much research on voice is conducted in the lab, but Sorokowski decided to analyze the speech of people in a real-life situation.
He had research assistants visit the offices of professors in a university and ask those professors two questions: “How do I get to the campus administration offices?” and “How [can one] become a scientist, and is it worth it?”
The first question, for anyone working on that campus, would be easy to answer. The second assumes specialist knowledge and relevant experience. In both cases, the research assistants recorded audio of the professors’ responses.
Sorokowski’s team measured the pitch and resonance of the professors’ voices using a freely available but sophisticated computer program. As predicted, both male and female professors spoke in deeper and more resonant voices when answering the question that required specialist knowledge, perhaps because they wished to project their authority.
There was also a gender difference: women lowered the pitch of their voices to a greater extent than men when giving career advice rather than directions. The psychologists speculate that women may need to lower their voices more to have an effect on their listeners, or that under normal circumstances men speak almost as low as they are able, meaning they are less able to deepen their voice further.
In a follow-up study, a group of volunteers who couldn’t understand the language spoken by the professors (Polish) listened to the recordings and rated them for authority and competence. Recordings of career advice were rated both more authoritative and competent than recordings of directions, even though the listeners didn’t know the content of what they were hearing.
A drawback of this study is that the professors knew they were being recorded and may have spoken differently than they would in natural conversation. Also, I wonder if the two types of question are so different that they might prompt different speaking styles regardless of authority. What would happen if professors were asked to speak authoritatively on a topic they are not expert in?
Previous research has shown that people with lower pitched and more resonant voices are rated as more dominant and competent, but, oddly enough, both men and women who are asked to adjust their voices to sound more confident, intelligent, and dominant tend to speak with a higher and not a lower pitch.
Sorokowski, P., Puts, D., Johnson, J., Żółkiewicz, O., Oleszkiewicz, A., Sorokowska, A., . . . Pisanski, K. (2019). Voice of authority: professionals lower their vocal frequencies when giving expert advice. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 43, 257–269. doi:10.1007/s10919–019–00307–0