Power has a sound, and feeling powerful actually changes a person’s voice.
That is one finding of a new study on speech and power from San Diego State University and Columbia Business School, recently published in the journal Psychological Science. The findings suggest that we know power when we hear it, and what’s more, we tend to alter our voices to seem more potent, says lead researcher Sei Jin Ko of San Diego State University.
Executives, political leaders and aspirants to power often employ voice coaching to sound commanding–Margaret Thatcher’s well-documented voice training is just one example. But much about voice and power is unintentional, says Ko. Depending on the situation and whether we are addressing a child, boss or friend, our voices subtly shift in pitch, loudness and tone, she adds.
In one experiment, the researchers recorded 161 college students reading a passage aloud to capture a baseline for their voices. Students were then randomly assigned to high- and low-powered roles in a negotiation exercise. Afterwards, the participants read a second passage aloud. Those who played high-powered roles in the negotiation spoke in a higher pitch and become more monotone —in other words, more energetic, but less singsongy. More powerful actors also tended to have more variation in loudness than those in less powerful rules, raising and lowering the volume of their voices. The results were consistent across genders.
A second experiment found that listeners could accurately identify which speakers had more powerful roles and which were in weaker positions. Listeners tended to associate with power voices that increased in pitch and loudness and that had more variability in loudness. Those associations meshed with the vocal changes the researchers observed in the first experiment.
While a deep, booming voice like James Earl Jones’s sounds distinctive, people speak in a higher pitch when the situation demands that they demonstrate power, researchers found.
“You can definitely make yourself sound more powerful,” says Dr. Ko, who co-authored the paper with Melody Sadler of San Diego State and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School.