In apparent bad news for squeaky-voiced politicians, researchers at McMaster University say that voters prefer male candidates who speak at a lower pitch. In better news, their study involved no actual voters or candidates. So is it just laboratory lore, or is there some truth to this theory?
The study consisted of two experiments. In the first, 125 young men and women listened to a series of audio clips. The clips were taken from archived recordings of nine U.S. presidents, tweaked to create both a lower-pitched and higher-pitched version. In each trial, a subject listened to the two versions of one president's voice, then answered questions: Which of the two voices sounds more attractive? Which sounds more intelligent? Which would you be more likely to vote for?
The subjects chose the lower voices for all nine questions about positive attributes, and only selected the higher voice as that "more likely to be involved in a government scandal." But all this really says is that when subjects were presented with two recordings of the same person's voice, side-by-side, they consciously preferred the lower-pitched version.
To really get at people's voting preferences, the study should have kept subjects in the dark about what they were selecting. The audio clips should have been randomized so that subjects were comparing different people, not different versions of the same voice. The words spoken in each recording should have been the same. Naturally pitched voices could have been included, instead of only altered voices. As long as voices were being altered, it would have been nice to include several different pitches, instead of only two. And as long as we're changing the study altogether, how about some historical data about the voices of winning and losing candidates in actual elections?
The second experiment was a little better. Instead of presidents, subjects heard the voices of six non-famous males, manipulated into higher- and lower-pitched versions, speaking the same sentence. (Don't get too excited; there were only 40 subjects this time.) In each trial, subjects heard one raised voice and one lowered voice, then chose which one they would rather vote for in a national election.
Again, subjects picked the lower voices. But again, subjects were being asked to choose between an obviously lower and higher voice. If the voices had been presented one at a time, and subjects asked to rate them individually on attractiveness or leadership or appeal to voters, we could glean more information about people's unconscious preferences. As it is, we only know that subjects consciously preferred men with lower voices, deeming them better leaders and (according to attractiveness ratings) better potential mates.
Lead author Cara Tigue suggests that since a lower voice in males corresponds to higher testosterone levels, people who prefer basses to tenors are really displaying a preference for hormone-heavy men. Perhaps, Tigue says, we've evolved to prefer dominant men, and to detect them based on their vocal pitch.
It would be hasty, though, to infer anything from this study about the evolution of democratically elected pack leaders. Maybe if we elected more female politicians, people would stop associating a low voice with leadership ability in the first place.
Meanwhile, as Tigue acknowledges, there are a lot of factors that matter more to an election than vocal pitch. This year's candidates would be better off worrying about their talking points than the pitch at which they're delivered.
Cara C. Tigue, Diana J. Borak, Jillian J.M. O'Connor, Charles Schandl, & David R. Feinberg (2011). Voice pitch influences voting behavior Evolution and Human Behavior