A new study shows that voters naturally seem to prefer candidates with deeper voices, which they associate with strength and competence.
Researchers at the University of Miami and Duke University say our preference for leaders with lower-pitched voices is a throwback to our “caveman instincts” that associate leadership with physical strength more than wisdom and experience.
“Modern-day political leadership is more about competing ideologies than brute force,” said study co-author Dr. Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at Miami. “But at some earlier time in human history it probably paid off to have a literally strong leader.”
The results are consistent with a previous study by Klofstad and his colleagues that found that candidates with deeper voices get more votes. The researchers found that a deep voice conveys greater physical strength, competence, and integrity. The findings held up for female candidates, too.
Associating a lower voice with strength has some merit, according to Klofstad. Men and women with lower-pitched voices generally have higher testosterone, and are physically stronger and more aggressive, he noted.
But the researchers still wondered what physical strength has to do with leadership in our modern age, or why people with deeper voices should be considered intrinsically more competent, or having greater integrity.
That led them to test the theory that our preference for lower-pitched voices makes sense because it favors candidates who are older, which means they are wiser and more experienced.
To test the theory, Klofstad and biologists Drs. Rindy Anderson and Steve Nowicki at Duke conducted two experiments.
The first was a online survey completed by 800 volunteers, who were given information about the age and sex of two hypothetical candidates and then asked who they would vote for. The candidates ranged in age from 30 to 70, but those in their 40s and 50s were most likely to win, according to the experiment’s findings.
“That’s when leaders are not so young that they’re too inexperienced, but not so old that their health is starting to decline or they’re no longer capable of active leadership,” Klofstad said. “Low and behold, it also happens to be the time in life when people’s voices reach their lowest pitch.”
For the second part of the study, the researchers asked 400 men and 403 women to listen to pairs of recorded voices saying, “I urge you to vote for me this November.”
Each paired recording was the same person, whose voice pitch was altered up and down with computer software.
After listening to each pair, the voters were asked which voice seemed stronger, more competent and older, and who they would vote for if they were running against each other in an election.
The deeper-voiced candidates won 60 to 76 percent of the votes, according to the findings.
When the researchers analyzed the voters’ perceptions of the candidates, they were surprised to find that strength and competence mattered more than age.
The researchers then calculated the mean voice pitch of the candidates from the 2012 U.S. House of Representatives elections and found that candidates with lower-pitched voices were more likely to win.
Next, they plan to see if their voice pitch data correlates with objective measures of leadership ability, such as years in office or number of bills passed.
Most people would like to think they make conscious, rational decisions about who to vote for based on careful consideration of the candidates and the issues, Klofstad said.
“We think of ourselves as rational beings, but our research shows that we also make thin impressionistic judgments based on very subtle signals that we may or may not be aware of,” he said.
Biases aren’t always bad, he added, noting there may be good reasons to go with our gut.
“But if it turns out that people with lower voices are actually poorer leaders, then it’s bad that voters are cuing into this signal if it’s not actually a reliable indicator of leadership ability,” he concluded.
“Becoming more aware of the biases influencing our behavior at the polls may help us control them or counteract them if they’re indeed leading us to make poor choices.”
The study was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.