As a rule, big beasts tend to make deep noises, whereas little creatures squeak. Perhaps it's little wonder then that we tend to rate human speakers with deeper voices as seeming more powerful. Another finding is that if you put a person in a position of power they will tend to lower their voice. These previous results prompted Mariëlle Stel and her fellow researchers to find out if speaking with a deeper pitch than usual would lead people to feel more powerful.
In an initial study, 81 student participants were split into three groups. Participants in the control group read a passage of geography text silently to themselves. The other two groups read the text out loud, either in a deeper or higher pitch than usual (by three tones). To make sure the participants didn't guess the true aims of the study, the students were next asked some filler questions about the text. The final stage of the experiment was then presented to them as being unrelated to the reading exercise. This involved the students answering seven questions about how powerful they felt (for example, indicating how much they felt dominant versus submissive). None of the students guessed the purpose of the study.
Reading the text with a deep voice didn't affect the students' answers to the questions about the text, but it did appear to affect their feelings of power. Students in the deep voice condition rated themselves as more powerful than students in the other two groups.
A second study was similar, but this time students read some text in a high or low pitch, or they heard someone else doing the reading with a high or low pitch. Only reading the pitch oneself affected feelings of power, with students who read in a low voice rating themselves as more powerful than students who read in a high voice.
One last study involved reading out loud in a deep or high voice, and then the participants completed a memory task that's designed to reveal abstract thinking (mistakenly believing a word was seen in an earlier to-be-remembered list, just because it's got a similar meaning to one of those earlier words, is taken as a sign of more abstract thinking). This time, reading out loud in a deep voice led to more abstract thinking. Stel and her colleagues said this makes sense when considered alongside an earlier study that found people in power tend to think more abstractly than low power people, perhaps because power makes people feel more "psychologically distant".
Throughout these experiments, the effects of lowering one's voice pitch on feelings of power were presumably subconscious. After all, the students weren't able to guess the aims of the study. The researchers said it would be interesting for the future to see if it's possible to deliberately lower your voice in order to feel more powerful. "If so," they concluded, "this would add a simple and generally available instrument to your strategic arsenal: your own voice. The lowering of your own voice could then be used not only to influence others but also to influence yourself."
Stel, M., van Dijk, E., Smith, P., van Dijk, W., and Djalal, F. (2011). Lowering the Pitch of Your Voice Makes You Feel More Powerful and Think More Abstractly. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611427610
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.