Choose your words carefully when trying to command attention, but choose your tone even more so. This is the advice gleaned from a new study into human voice and the perception of power, which suggests people have a natural knack at picking apart high-status voices from low-status ones.

One of the emerging discoveries in psychology involves the relationship between our bodies’ physical behavior — think speech, posture, gestures — and the perceptions we effect to whomever is around us. The Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, for example, has found “power poses,” such as a wide-footed Wonder Woman pose, can increase testosterone levels and cut cortisol, a stress hormone, from your body. Emotions don’t just affect how we act, in other words. Our actions can affect our emotions.

“We wanted to explore how something so fundamental as power might elicit changes in the way a voice sounds, and how these situational vocal changes impact the way listeners perceive and behave toward the speakers,” said co-author of the study and psychological scientist at San Diego State University, Sei Jin Ko, in a statement.

Ko and her colleagues gathered a group of college students to assume one of two roles. They were either assigned to a high-rank group, in which they were told to imagine going into a negotiation with a competitive alternative offer, inside information, or high status in the workplace; or they were in a low-rank group, in which participants were told their fictional selves had none of the same perks of the high-rank group. Each person then read a selected passage aloud.

Recordings showed stark differences between how the two groups read the passage. Compared to the low-rank subjects, people in the high-rank group went up in pitch and tended to stay more monotonous with their speech, also varying their degree of loudness throughout. Co-author Adam Galinsky, professor of business at Columbia Business School, said the fluctuations mirrored the patterns of their model candidate, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“Amazingly, power affected our participants' voices in almost the exact same way that Thatcher's voice changed after her vocal training,” Galinsky said, referring to the prime minister’s extensive humming and pitch modulation exercises, designed to make her sound more forceful, punctuated, and strong.

But that wasn’t the extent of the team’s study. In a follow-up experiment, a separate group of unknowing participants was brought in to listen to each status group read the selected passage. They didn’t know who was in which group. Nevertheless, they were more likely to assign higher rank to the people in the high-rank group, and vice versa. They credited the variance in pitch and changes in loudness as key indicators. They also said loudness tended to appeal as a high-rank quality.

“These findings suggest that listeners are quite perceptive to these subtle variations in vocal cues and they use these cues to decide who is in charge,” Galinsky said.

Even without visual cues like mannerisms, style of dress, and general appearance, our brains rely on prior associations with powerful speakers to determine which voices deserve our attention. But the study also suggests that there’s a certain power in performance. The subjects weren’t actually of high or low status; they were pretending, and still managed to fool unsuspecting listeners. Like Cuddy’s Wonder Woman pose and other research — for instance, the act of smiling as a way to cause happiness — the study reveals our curious ability to fool others by fooling ourselves.

Source: Ko S, Sadler M, Galinsky A. The Sound of Power Conveying and Detecting Hierarchical Rank Through Voice. Psychological Science. 2014.