Study Finds We Alter Our Voice Depending on Listener's Social Status

A new study has found that people tend to change the pitch of their voice depending on who they are talking to, and how dominant they feel.

The research, conducted at the University of Stirling in England, put 48 participants through a simulated job interview. What the researchers discovered is that individuals’ vocal characteristics, particularly pitch, are altered in response to people of different social status.

Regardless of self-perceived social status, people tend to talk to high status individuals using a higher pitch, the researchers noted.

“A deep, masculine voice sounds dominant, especially in men, while the opposite is true of a higher pitched voice,” said Dr. Viktoria Mileva, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Stirling.

“So, if someone perceives their interviewer to be more dominant than them, they raise their pitch. This may be a signal of submissiveness, to show the listener that you are not a threat, and to avoid possible confrontations.”

“These changes in our speech may be conscious or unconscious, but voice characteristics appear to be an important way to communicate social status,” she continued. “We found both men and women alter their pitch in response to people they think are dominant and prestigious.”

The researchers also discovered that participants who think they are dominant, as well as use methods like manipulation, coercion, and intimidation to acquire social status, are less likely to vary their pitch and will speak in a lower tone when talking to someone of a high social status.

Individuals who rate themselves as high in prestige — they believe people look up to them and value their opinions, which grants them social status — do not change how loud they are speaking, no matter who they are speaking to, according to the study’s findings. This may signal that they are more calm and in control of a situation.

For the study, the participants responded to introductory, personal, and interpersonal interview questions. They lowered the pitch of their voice most in response to the more complex, interpersonal questions, for example when explaining a conflict situation to an employer.

“Signals and perceptions of human social status have an effect on virtually every human interaction, ranging from morphological characteristics, such as face shape, to body posture, specific language use, facial expressions and voices,” Mileva said. “Understanding what these signals are, and what their effects are, will help us comprehend an essential part of human behavior.”

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

Source: University of Stirling