In a fascinating study of voter preferences, American men and women show a strong bias against high-pitched politicians, believing on some conscious or unconscious level that deeper voices make for stronger, more confident and more capable leaders.
Researchers had five men and five women record a statement urging voter participation. Then the recordings were manipulated so that they sounded higher or lower. When study participants listened to side-by-side voice recordings of a pair of male or female speakers, they were asked which speaker seemed more competent and which they would vote for. In most cases, the lower-voiced "candidate" won.
“In antiquity, that might have been a good way to pick a leader,” says Casey Klofstad, lead author of the study and associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. “But is that germane to modern political conflict?” Today's politicians bludgeon each other with TV ads, not clubs.
When Klofstad started digging, he found loads of linguistic and psychological literature pointing to a strong connection between low-pitched voices and voters' perception of qualities like strength, competence and leadership abilities.
But why? Existing studies fell back on the testosterone hypothesis. As any parent of a teenage boy knows, the vocal transformation brought on by puberty can be dramatic. Higher testosterone levels not only result in lower voices, but also in increased physical and social aggression.
Does that mean that the 2016 presidential hopefuls should all be doing Barry White impressions at their rallies? Good luck with that.
“While you can moderate the pitch of your voice up and down a little bit — like in the movies 'The King's Speech' and 'The Iron Lady' — you're still bound by the biologically determined shape of your larynx and vocal chords,” says Klofstad. “The die is pretty much cast.”
At first this sounds like more bad news for women in politics. Not only do female candidates have to overcome deep-seated social biases against “bossy” women, but their very voices could make them sound shrill next to the soothing baritone of their testosterone-oozing competition.
But in another study Klofstad conducted, when male candidates went head-to-head with female candidates, candidates with higher-than-average voices were more successful, particularly male candidates. In those cases, Klofstad hypothesizes that men with lower voices may have been perceived as “too aggressive” compared to their female competition.
From analyzing voice recordings of more than 750 candidates in the 2012 congressional elections snatched from YouTube and TV broadcasts, Klofstad already knows that men and women with comparatively lower voices won more seats. Now he's figuring out ways to objectively measure the effectiveness of these low-pitched politicians as leaders. How many bills have they passed? Which committees do they sit on? How much money have they raised?
Of course, the way a candidate sounds is only one part of a complex electability equation. Richard Nixon, after all, had a deeper voice than John F. Kennedy, but Nixon's visibly nervous and sweaty performance in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 was electoral kryptonite.
Still, President Barry White? Awww, yeahhhhhh.