People’s Voices Change When They Have Power, Even If It’s Fake Power

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Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

Back in the day, before civilization fully took root, it was pretty easy to tell which humans or pre-humans dominated over others. And when there was a disagreement about this, someone’s skull would be bashed in, settling the matter in an unambiguous, if brutal, manner. Today, mercifully, things are different. We still have hierarchies, of course, but they’re (generally) not based on physical prowess, but rather on more nuanced social structures. A new study in Psychological Science shows that one of the ways we determine who has power and who lacks it is by processing subtle cues in the tones of their voices — cues that appear to emerge even when people only have “power” of a fleeting, superficial sort.

This was a two-part study. First, the researchers had 161 college students (almost exactly split between men and women) read a passage in their normal voices to get baseline measures of their voices’ loudness, pitch, and so on. Then, each student was assigned to either a “high-rank condition” or a “low-rank condition” for a negotiation exercise. Those in the high-rank condition “were told to imagine that they had a strong alternative offer,” that they had “valuable inside information,” that they had “high status in the workplace,” or, more generally, to remember a time when they had power, and were presented with a short paragraph explaining their situation. For those in the low-rank condition, the cues were the opposite (they lacked a good alternative offer, had no inside information, and so on). Each group then read aloud a passage pertaining to the hypothetical negotiation.

In the second part of the study, a separate group of participants listened to the recorded negotiation passages and were asked a bunch of questions about how powerful they perceived the speakers to be. They did a lot better than a coin flip in identifying who was high- versus low-rank: 72 percent of the time, low-rank speakers were correctly identified as lacking power, and 73 percent of the time high-rank speakers were correctly identified as having it.

This is pretty fascinating when you realize that everyone was reading the exact same passage, and that the only difference in “power” was that the speakers were briefly told whether or not they had it. It appears that when we feel empowered, even in a superficial way, various aspects of our voices change — and that other people often take notice.

Specifically, the voices of those in the high-rank group tended to get higher pitched, have less pitch variability (that is, become more monotone), and exhibit greater loudness in variability. The researchers point out that these changes match what happened to Margaret Thatcher’s voice after she received vocal training designed to make her sound more leaderlike following her election as prime minister of the U.K. Whoever was working with the Iron Lady apparently earned their paycheck.