By guest blogger Lexie Thorpe
In most human societies those with a higher social status enjoy privileges beyond the reach of others. Such status can be obtained through dominance, using intimidation or force, or acquiring prestige by demonstrating knowledge and skill. To make best use of the benefits though, other people need to know that you are top dog.
On the other hand, if you’re of a lower status, there are probably times when it pays to avoid challenging those higher up the pecking order. In which case, you might want to convey your recognition of their authority.
Using body language, such as by taking up more space (adopting “power poses”) may be one of the most obvious, visible modes of asserting ourselves. But of course speech also conveys status, not only in its content, but in the characteristics of the voice itself. Indeed, according to a new study in PLOS One we adjust the pitch of our voice depending on who we are talking to. The research group at the University of Stirling found that the direction of this unconscious vocal tuning depends on the speaker’s perception of their social status relative to the listener.
Juan David Leongómez and his colleagues recorded students as they took part in simulated interviews for a job as an admin assistant with three different male employers (the order of the interviews was varied between participants). A picture and description of each employer showed one to be highly dominant (Chief of Security at a prison, described as tough and intimidating), another highly prestigious (Head of Department at a Business School, described as well-respected and competent), and a third was neutral (from the HR department at a secondary school, described as your average boss).
The participants had to introduce themselves to the employer, and explain why they were suited to the job. They were also asked about how they would approach their boss if they had a disagreement with a colleague. After all the interviews, the participants filled out a questionnaire about their own and the employers’ dominance and prestige.
From the recordings, the researchers calculated the “fundamental frequency” of the participants’ voices (an objective measure of pitch) and tracked variations in their voice pitch as they spoke. A low fundamental frequency would equate to sounding calm and in control, and has been found to be perceived as more dominant in both male and female voices, although the natural sex difference in absolute pitch was accounted for.
When talking to the highly dominant and prestigious employers, both male and female students who also perceived themselves as more dominant lowered their voice pitch, whilst students who perceived themselves to be less dominant did the opposite. These changes in pitch were most noticeable when the students explained why they were the best candidate and talked about how they would resolve the conflict.
It seemed that the students’ perception of their own status led them to use different vocal strategies in the interviews with the high-status employers. The students with higher self-perceived dominance may have felt more confident and in control of the situation, and thus more able to compete for the job. Conversely, for those who rated themselves less dominant, and may have felt more intimidated, appearing deferent to the employer may have been a beneficial strategy.
However, the employers were actually computerised faces created to appear prestigious, dominant or neither, so it’s not clear how these findings would relate to a prestigious employer in real-life, or to a less formal social setting. Mock job interviews have been shown to increase anxiety, and recording the participants’ speech is likely to have increased their stress further, making voice alterations more or less pronounced than usual.
The real-life implications of the effect are also not known, as the study did not address which group were more likely to be successful in the interview. Whilst being intimidated might not come across well, it’s probably not a good idea to compete with your boss either. CEOs with lower-pitched voices tend to manage larger companies and make more money, but then again, surgeons whose voices were perceived to be higher in dominance, and possibly arrogance, were more likely to have been sued for malpractice. Suffice then to say that, when asserting status, context – and subtlety – is key.
Post written by Lexie Thorpe (@Lexie_Thorpe) for BPS Research Digest. Lexie is currently an Assistant Psychologist and freelance science writer. She writes about psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience and occasionally blogs at Cognitales.