An integral part of conversation transcends eye contact and body language, and comes down to the pitch of a person’s voice, according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. An international team of researchers from the University of Illinois, University of British Columbia, and Harvard listened closely to how the pitch of someone’s voice could change the way a listener thinks about them.

"What excites me about this research is that we now know a little bit more about how humans use their voices to signal status," said the study’s lead author Joey Cheng, a psychology professor from the University of Illinois, in a statement. "In the past, we focused a lot on posture and tended to neglect things like the voice. But this study clearly shows that there's something about the voice that's very interesting and very effective as a channel of dynamically communicating status."

Researchers recruited 191 participants between ages of 17 and 52 and placed them in a room to solve problems as a group. They gave participants a hypothetical situation that required learning to survive a disaster on the moon. Participants were asked to rank 15 items from least to most important for their survival and then gave them the opportunity to discuss the matter within the group. Participants recorded their discussion and used phonetic analysis software to measure the fundamental frequency of each utterance.

Researchers paid close attention to those who changed their answers and how the pitch of their voice changed in relation to their answers, as well as to those who dominated the conversation through influence. One group of outside participants observed the discussion group alongside the researchers and found those who had deeper pitch in their first three utterances were able to win over the group more effectively compared to those with higher pitches. They were also rated more dominant, prestigious, and influential compared to those who had a pitch that increased between their first and third utterance.

"What's really fascinating about status is that regardless of which groups you look at, and what culture and in what context, what inevitably happens is that people divide themselves into leaders and followers, and there's a hierarchy that's involved," Cheng said. "Humans, like many other animals, use their voices to signal and assert dominance over others."

In a second experiment, researchers asked 274 participants between ages of 15 and 61 to listen to audio recordings of a person making three statements, spoken with two different pitches. Unable to see the person making the recording, participants were forced to make judgments solely based on the sounds of the recorded voice. As the voice in the recording decreased in pitch, listeners judged the person to whom it belonged to be more influential, powerful, intimidating, and domineering. The voices left an impression on the listener in the first few utterances, which may place greater importance on first impressions between two new people.

"What we've found previously is that both of these strategies — prestige and dominance — positively correlate with behavioral influence," Cheng said. "Both are effective pathways to getting there. But only dominance is about fear and intimidation, and only dominance is related in this study to changes in the pitch of one's voice. How you change your voice does not appear to be related to how much respect you win."

Whether deepening the voice alerts listeners to the speaker’s power or to his or her intent, researchers believe doing so may be a way to take control of the conversation and help steer it in the direction a speaker desires. Cheng said a deep pitch won’t gain you admiration or respect, though. You’ll have to earn that the hard way.

Source: Listen, follow me: Dynamic vocal signals of dominance predict emergent social rank in humans. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2016.