Originally published by Douglas Keene.
I was in graduate school in the early 1980s when Carol Gilligan’s book (In a Different Voice) came out and we thought we were quite amusing when we always voiced the title in a high-pitched tone. Thirty-five years later, we have research telling us we really may pitch our voices differently when speaking to someone we perceive as having higher status.
Today’s researchers wondered if how dominant or prestigious the person to whom one was speaking was perceived to be, would influence voice pitch in undergraduates. They planned a simulated interview task and wrote up brief descriptions of the photos to help pilot study participants categorize the photos as Dominant, Prestigious, or Neutral (i.e., photos perceived as either Dominant, Prestigious or Neutral).
Here are the descriptions they used:
Dominant: An approximately 36-45 year old male. He is an extremely dominant individual. This person likes to be in control and to get their way. They will use force, coercion, and intimidation to achieve their goals if necessary.
Prestige: An approximately 36-45 year old male. He is a highly valued, prestigious and influential individual. He has many valued skills and qualities and others follow him freely. This ultimately leads to his achieving his goals.
Neutral: These descriptions were not given. These photos were composed of those that scored neither high in Dominance or high in Prestige.
Then, the researchers had participants (48 total, 24 men and 24 women; average age 20.8 for the men and 20.2 for the women) complete a simulated job interview task. Participants were told they were pilot testing a new form of interviewing that did not require the interviewer and the interviewee to be in the same room for the interview. They were shown different photographs (with either Dominant, Prestigious or Neutral photos of the interviewers presumably asking the questions) and recorded their answers to varying interview questions with the idea that the photograph at which they looked was the person asking the questions.
The researchers found that the individual participants would alter their pitch (and other vocal characteristics) in response to people of high social status. This would happen even when the participant perceived themselves as having a high social status.
The researchers think an interview situation is one where the interviewer has a perceived dominance and so the interviewee raises the pitch of their voice to show the interviewer they are not a threat.
This was not the case with participants who described themselves on pre-study questionnaires as dominant—they actually lowered their voices! Conversely, those that described themselves as low in dominance, pitched their voices higher for the responses.
People that rated themselves as high in prestige, do not change the volume of their speech no matter to whom they are speaking. The researchers think this is meant to signal the person is calm and in control in the situation.
We have several concerns with this study. It has a small sample of participants and they are all quite young and may have been intimidated by the high dominance or high prestige descriptions of their alleged interviewers. Nonetheless, it seems intuitive that we would modify our voice pitch or other characteristics depending on to whom we were speaking. But it is an initial venture, and not conclusive.
Does the voice rise due to tension (which affects vocalization) or deference of some sort?
Is there a reason to imagine that anything but fearfulness might produce the vocal shift?
Do people respond differently to those whose pitch rises, or to those who are at a lower pitch?
Is it (as Carol Gilligan explored 35 years ago) mainly another manifestation of gender bias, or can anyone enhance their credibility and acceptance by working at keeping their voice in a lower register? [Gilligan’s book includes considerations of how women’s gender-informed voices (i.e., perspective, values, life experiences, insights) are crucial for a balanced understanding of life.] The study does raise questions about how to interpret the results, but certainly offers worthwhile considerations for witness presentation.
You want your witnesses voice pitch and tone to be the same whether a dominant attorney or a seemingly kind attorney is questioning them. Don’t let them hear you sweat.
Videotaped practice can be useful in helping witnesses see and hear how their voice pitch changes depending on their emotional reactions to the questioner’s tone or visual appearance.
Experience tells us clearly that a more credible witness is going to have similar tone and pitch during direct and cross-examination. I wonder what the future research will tell us?
Leongómez JD, Mileva VR, Little AC, Roberts SC (2017) Perceived differences in social status between speaker and listener affect the speaker’s vocal characteristics. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0179407.
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