When holding a conversation, men and women alike tend to change the pitch of their voices based on the perceived social status and prestige of their interlocutors, a new study reports.


Image credits Christine Sponchia.

Humans are social animals par excellence. And, while we may like to think that we willingly, knowingly, make all the social magic happen, our bodies play a much larger role than we give them credit for. Non-verbal communication is known to convey a huge wealth of information, often right under the noses of those engaged in conversation. But a new paper shows that paraverbal information also comes to flesh out our social interactions — again, without us even being aware.

Pitching in

A team of psychologists from the University of Stirling wanted to see how perceived social status alters pitch, one of the main elements of paraverbal communication. So they had a group of 48 students, 24 male and 24 female, take a simulated job interview.

The interview was taken with a series of 3 virtual employers. The team started with series of 28 virtual male interlocutors designed by another group of students from written descriptions before the study. Dominants were described as “approximately 36–45 year old, […] extremely dominant individual” who “likes to be in control and to get their way. They will use force, coercion, and intimidation to achieve their goals if necessary.” Prestigious individuals were described as “approximately 36–45 year old, male […] highly valued, prestigious and influential” with “many valued skills and qualities and others follow him freely. This ultimately leads to his achieving his goals.”

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To get a feel for how close to their mark the designers were, a third group of 69 undergrads was asked to rate the faces on a 1 (low dominance/prestige) to 7 (high dominance/prestige) scale. The highest-scoring face for dominance and for prestige were used, as well as the face which received median marks for both traits (as a control/neutral employer.)

During the mock interview, students responded to introductory, personal, and interpersonal interview questions. Overall, they tended to speak with higher-pitched voices when talking with employers who they perceived were of higher social status than them, the team reports. This happened regardless of the way the students felt about their own social status — all that was needed was for them to perceive the employer as being of higher status — for male and female students alike.

In contrast, they tended to lower the pitch of their voice most in response to the more complex or interpersonal questions, such as when explaining a conflict situation to an employer.

The team believes this happens since low-pitched voices sound more dominant (particularly in men) while lower pitches sound relatively submissive — which may be your body’s way of saying “don’t worry I’m not here to stir trouble.”

“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,” explains Dr Viktoria Mileva, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Stirling and co-author to the paper

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

Further supporting this theory, the team also found that participants who perceive themselves as dominant — those who use methods like manipulation, coercion, or intimidation to acquire social status — were less likely to change to a higher pitch when speaking with someone of a higher social status.

The findings show how deeply embedded subconscious communication is in every type of human interaction, and how our perceived place in society governs how we act in relation to our peers. The effects seen in this study might hold true for other settings in which there’s a perceived social status difference between the two interlocutors, such as in school or when settling a dispute.

“Understanding what these signals are, and what their effects are, will help us comprehend an essential part of human behaviour,” Dr Mileva adds.

The paper “Perceived differences in social status between speaker and listener affect the speaker’s vocal characteristics” was published in the journal PLOS One.