The way you speak can be fundamentally changed if you are in a position of power, changing basic acoustic properties of the voice, and people can pick up on these vocal cues to know who is really in charge, according to new research from San Diego State University.

We do often consciously change our speaking when we want to be percieved as powerful to others, but these findings suggest that fundamental acoustic cues also play a role.

“Our findings suggest that whether it’s parents attempting to assert authority over unruly children, haggling between a car salesman and customer, or negotiations between heads of states, the sound of the voices involved may profoundly determine the outcome of those interactions,” says lead researcher Sei Jin Ko.

The investigation into the relationship between acoustic cues and power was inspired by former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

“It was quite well known that Thatcher had gone through extensive voice coaching to exude a more authoritative, powerful persona,” said Ko. “We wanted to explore how something so fundamental as power might elicit changes in the way a voice sounds, and how these situational vocal changes impact the way listeners perceive and behave toward the speakers."

Two studies were designed by Ko and his colleagues to look at these issues.

Negotiation Exercises

For the first study, 161 college students were recorded reading a passage aloud in order to capture a baseline for acoustics. The participants were then assigned to play a specific role in a negotiation exercise.

Students randomly assigned a “high” rank were asked to go into the negotiation imagining that they either had a strong alternative offer, some valuable inside information, high status in the workplace, or they were told to recall a previous experience in which they had power before the negotiation started.

“Low” ranking students, conversely, were told to imagine they had either a weak offer, no inside information, or low workplace status, or they were asked to recall an experience in which they had lacked power.

Then students read a second passage aloud, like they were beginning negotiations with their imaginary adversary, and their voices were recorded. All participants read the same opening, enabling the researchers to examine acoustics while holding the speech content constant across all participants.

When comparing the first to the second recordings, it was found that the voices of students assigned high-power roles tended to go up in pitch, become more monotone and less variable in pitch, and become more variable in loudness than the voices of students assigned low-power roles.

“Amazingly, power affected our participants’ voices in almost the exact same way that Thatcher’s voice changed after her vocal training,” says Adam Galinsky, co-author.

Vocal Cues get Noticed

The second experiment involved a different group of college students, and showed that listeners, with no knowledge of the first experiment, could pick up on these power-related vocal cues to figure out who did and did not have power:

Listeners ranked the speakers who had been assigned to the high-rank group as more likely to engage in high-power behaviors, and they were able to categorize whether a speaker had high or low rank with considerable accuracy.

“These findings suggest that listeners are quite perceptive to these subtle variations in vocal cues and they use these cues to decide who is in charge,” Galinsky said.

Consistent with the vocal changes heard in the first experiments, listeners tended to connect higher pitch and voices that varied in loudness with high-power behaviors. They also associated louder voices with higher power.

The Sound of Power: Conveying and Detecting Hierarchical Rank Through Voice Sei Jin Ko, Melody S. Sadler, and Adam D. Galinsky Psychological Science, 0956797614553009, first published on November 20, 2014

Photos, top to bottom by: Cliff, R Barraez D´Lucca, Joi Ito

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