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Who has the deepest and most resonant voice?

I found something interesting while browsing Michael Shermer’s columns in Scientific American. It’s about how subliminal influences affect our choices.

WITH THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION looming on the horizon in November, consider these two crucial questions: Who looks more competent, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Who has the deepest and most resonant voice? Maybe your answer is, “Who cares? I vote for candidates based on their policies and positions, not on how they look and sound!” If so, that very likely is your rational brain justifying an earlier choice that your emotional brain made based on these seemingly shallow criteria.

Before the election, I urge you to read Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon). You will gain insights such as that higherpitched voices are judged by subjects as more nervous and less truthful and empathetic than speakers with lower-pitched voices, and that speaking a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume leads people to judge someone to be energetic, intelligent and knowledgeable. Looks matter even more. One study presented subjects with campaign flyers featuring black-and-white photographs of models posing as Democrats or Republicans in fictional congressional races; half looked able and competent, whereas the other half did not, as rated by volunteers before the experiment. The flyers included the candidate’s name, party afiliation, education, occupation, political experience and three position statements. To control for party preference, half the subjects were shown the more suitablelooking candidate as a Democrat, and the other half saw him as a Republican. Results: 59 percent of the vote went to the candidate with the more capable appearance regardless of other qualifications. A similar study in a mock election resulted in a 15-percentage- point advantage for the more authoritative-looking politician.

Right…And you know what else, Dr Shermer? You know who usually doesn’t have the deepest and most resonant voice? Women. You know who usually doesn’t “look more competent”? Women. You know who has higherpitched voices that will be judged as more nervous and less truthful and empathetic than speakers with lower-pitched voices? Women. You know what pronoun appears in this sentence –

To control for party preference, half the subjects were shown the more suitablelooking candidate as a Democrat, and the other half saw him as a Republican.

The male one.

Do you see what I’m getting at, Dr Shermer? I’m sure you do, now that I’ve pointed it out. But do you see its relevance to you, yourself? That I’m not so confident about. Probably because I’m a woman, and I have a higherpitched voice.

Comments

  1. naturalcynic says

    It seems to me that the voices of women in positions of power also have the same comparatively low pitch: Clinton, Allbright, Thatcher, Condi Rice, etc.

  2. says

    My sister-in-law developed a lower voice to command more attention in her job as a lawyer. Previously she spoke in the soprano range. I don’t judge her. She’s reacting to a social reality that might not ever change. Humans have all sorts of nasty instinctive primate social reactions that we need to control, and this one (respecting lower pitched voices more than higher ones) will probably prove to be among the more resilient. My take is that a woman whose voice is below average for women can be as commanding as a man whose voice is below the average for men. Maybe this has been studied? And men with naturally high voices might develop lower ones like my sister-in-law did.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Gee, Ophelia, when you say this you sound awfully…

    (let me think. What’s a good adjective that will totally put Ophelia in her place by telling her in no uncertain terms that her argument is illogical and overemotional? Got it.)

    …shrill. Yep, very, very shrill.

    In a totally non-gendered way, of course.

  4. Stacy says

    Ouch. That was a kick to the place that will make him have a higher-pitched voice.

    Yeah, a female challenge to a male’s opinion or authoritah is often perceived that way.

    But not in this case. Didn’t you get the memo? Ophelia is witch-hunting Dr. Shermer.

  5. jamessweet says

    I tend to be a loudtalker, particularly in meetings or when I’m excited about expressing an idea. A very painful thing that happened a few years ago was coming to terms with the fact that, although my intentions were entirely benign, this habit had unintentionally misogynist consequences. In meetings where I was heavily participating, women were less likely to speak up.

    It’s hard to admit that something you are doing is having discriminatory results, especially when you never meant it to do anything of the kind. I guess I kinda understand why for some people, the reaction to having that pointed out is “Shut up, that’s why.” Less cognitive dissonance to sort through.

  6. Rob says

    Almost without exception the female lawyers, analysts and expert witnesses I work with speak both slower and at a lower pitch than what I consider normal for the balance of the female population. Anecdotal I know. I’d still put money on it being a learnt behaviour.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Not having a television nor a radio, and rarely bothering with online videos (nor having the patience to sample a numerically significant volume of clips), I really truly dunno: whose voice is deeper, Mr. O’s or Mr. R’s?

    And how the hell did Ms. McCaskill, Ms. Warren, and Ms. Baldwin get any votes at all?

  8. says

    “Who cares? I vote for candidates based on their policies and positions, not on how they look and sound!” If so, that very likely is your rational brain justifying an earlier choice that your emotional brain made based on these seemingly shallow criteria.

    Well, this makes my firm policy of never listening to any of the candidates, seem quite sensible; I prefer to look at their written policy statements and voting history to make my judgement, and virtually nothing any of them say actually has any real bearing on that, so why waste my time? I’d be interested to see what happened if an experiment like the one Shermer described was done where people saw a list of positions first and were then shown a more or less ‘competent looking’ or deep voiced candidate who supposedly has those positions.

    Marlow up river

    Humans have all sorts of nasty instinctive primate social reactions that we need to control, and this one (respecting lower pitched voices more than higher ones) will probably prove to be among the more resilient.

    What makes you assume that? It should as easily be a cultural factor that people are conditioned from an early age to respond better to deep voices in positions of authority.

    jamessweet
    I’m the same way. It took me the longest time to realize this because I tend to talk over men a lot too, and I wasn’t seeing the different dynamic that applied to women specifically.

  9. says

    Rob

    who posted while I was writing the last one:
    I work with speak both slower and at a lower pitch than what I consider normal for the balance of the female population.

    Women and girls are generally encouraged by society to artificially raise the pitch of their voices above what their natural register would be.,

  10. says

    Under the guidance of a National Theatre tutor, Margaret Thatcher had to get help to push her voice down in pitch. The exercises entailed humming exercises. Her higher-pitched voice was not acceptable in politics. I guess resonance is of the utmost when speaking to large crowds. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28_0gXLKLbk
    People who wish to raise or lower the pitch of their voice are encouraged to think of their voice resonating from the top of their head to the pit of their abdomen.

  11. slc1 says

    Who has the deepest and most resonant voice?

    That’s easy, the late Metropolitan Opera Basso Jerome Hines.

  12. sheila says

    I knew an engineer who got a slight eye infection and had to wear glasses instead of contact lenses for a week. Result – people listened to her more in meetings. She finally got into the habit of wearing glasses for meetings, in order to get people to hear what she was saying. We both though this was a) unutterably stupid and b) the best way of coping with the stupidity.

  13. chrislawson says

    With modern technology, it’s easy to change your voice in real time. I have heard anecdotal evidence that some female gamers use filters to sound male in online multi-player games. I think there’s a good research proposal here. Record a short speech, randomise listeners to hear the original or a pitch-shifted version, and see which one gets rated higher.

  14. says

    I know an engineer who always wore a lab coat even outside the lab, because if she didn’t, people took her for a secretary. The only other woman engineer there did the same thing.

  15. says

    What PZ said. Maybe if Shermer had said “it’s more of a guy thing” in a James Earl Jones voice, I would have nodded in agreement.

    Hahahahaha.

    James @ 7 – that’s one place where I think “misogynist” actually is the wrong word. Sexist consequences, but not misogynist ones.

  16. says

    A note for people who want to “dissent” – try hard not to sound like all the other pseudo-dissenters. Don’t repeat their talking points. That way you will sound like an actual dissenter, and not a sock puppet or troll or both. Then your comment will not be deleted and you will not be blocked.

  17. Lyanna says

    Speaking of “shrill”: I recall a white male leftist blogger telling me that it wasn’t sexist to call Hillary Clinton “shrill” because, well, she WAS shrill!

    Which is like defending calling a black person “uppity” because, like, they ARE uppity.

  18. says

    It’s really not that difficult. It’s funny that you can’t manage it. Don’t come across as extra-special pissed off at my daring to criticize Michael Shermer. That’s a tell, because normal people don’t find that outrageous. Don’t rant about how petulant I am about Shermer’s “response” to what I wrote. Don’t rave about my objections to being stalked. Don’t bring up Rebecca, or Ed Clint, or Justin Vacula, or TAM. Don’t misread everything I said in the post. Don’t get all frothy and ragey.

    All those things are tells. It’s hilarious that you can’t figure that out.

  19. Beauzeaux says

    “half looked able and competent, whereas the other half did not, as rated by volunteers before the experiment. ”

    I’d like to know a bit more about this. What were the volunteers told? And where did they come from? I’d be very skeptical of this “study.” Especially when there’s so much confirmation bias in the result.

    (Shermer’s a terrible writer — which I discovered much to my disappointment after buying one of his books.)

  20. says

    Ha! I was just thinking that. (@ 27) I heard a choir the other night in which one voice sounded exactly like Tuvan throat singing. I kept kind of looking for the Tuvan throat singer.

  21. Stacy says

    Ophelia, sadly for you, those banned comments that posed you some difficult questions have been documented and put up at The Slyme Pit.

    Good! Have fun. Grown ups are talking here.

  22. says

    I think this sentence of Anne Carson’s from “The Gender of Sounds” is very apt.

    Aristotle tells us that the highpitched voice of the female is one evidence of her evil disposition, for creatures who are brave or just (like lions, bulls, roosters and the human male) have large deep voices. (1 13-1 14).

  23. says

    So, the posts that Ophelia banned because they acted just like slimepitters were in fact made by slimpetters, who took them home with them when she banned them here. What a total shocker that is.

    Rob
    I don’t, but when I get home I’ll see what I can find.

  24. Riptide says

    I recall that Dawkins himself has been called “shrill”, though “strident” is the usual adjective affixed to him. I wonder if the proportion would have been reversed if he were a woman (or woman-identified in some capacity).

  25. Riptide says

    Interestingly, there’s a kind of Inuit throat singing that is similar to Tuvan throat singing, except that I’ve only ever heard women Inuit doing it. Here’s an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnGM0BlA95I (Note: audio starts at about 30 seconds in.)

    I wonder if Michael would find those women more trustworthy? But keep in mind that Michael is reporting on the results of an experiment and an apparent sociological phenomenon. He could easily take the facts he’s gathered and build a case for the general anti-woman slant in Western society. Likely he won’t, but he could do.

  26. says

    Oh I didn’t mean to say anything else. I know he’s reporting on the phenomenon, not endorsing it. I never meant to suggest he thinks it’s fine. I did mean to suggest he might not have noticed that it applies to women and that that’s the kind of thing that fosters stereotypes of the very kind he uttered…but that’s all.

  27. says

    And yes, Dawkins does get called shrill a lot. I’ve posted about that a good deal in the past. I’m interested in this kind of rhetoric, and the stereotypes it helps to create. That’s why I noticed what Shermer said, and why I wrote about it. There’s a myth that I was just itching to nail Shermer for something, but that’s bullshit.

  28. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Ophelia Benson
    December 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Marie-Therese is spot-on. Thatcher was mocked for being (why bother even typing the word?) SHRILL – so she took those lessons.

    It’s a little worse than ‘shrill’, I’m afraid. If she was to succeed in her aim to become Prime Minister then the Conservative Party, with her Evilness at the helm, would have to win over a large swathe of working class men ( this was the 1970’s; it was still widely assumed that most women would vote as their husbands, boyfriends, or fathers instructed them). According to an article I read at the time (possibly in ‘The Daily Mail’), the Evil One was told by her advisors that those men wouldn’t vote for her if she reminded them of their ‘nagging wifes’.
    And the silly fuckers bought it lock, stock and country-destroying barrel!

  29. Ysanne says

    Almost without exception the female lawyers, analysts and expert witnesses I work with speak both slower and at a lower pitch than what I consider normal for the balance of the female population.

    Turning it the other way round, it is often considered “un-feminine” (as in: big, hairy, bad manners) to talk in a normal, loud voice instead of a high-pitched, playful-fast “girly” one with lots of question-like tone at the end of the sentences.
    I.e. talking in a way associated with confidence, assertiveness, competence and seriousness is actively discouraged in faviour of a way that projects a child-like, rash, playful and uncertain image.

  30. says

    I do not see any reference to sex in the article, and I definitely do not see any sexist remarks at all. Perhaps you are letting your own personal bias cloud your ability to read. Inferences aside, point to any piece of data that affirms your position. You cannot because you have not cited any. You seem to have some sort of axe to grind with Dr. Shermer. Maybe he is a sexist, maybe you know something we do not. But calling this simple restatements of information from another person’s work proof of Dr. Shermer’s sexist attitude is, to say the very least, a stretch.

  31. says

    Oh, the wrong pronoun! that is double-plus ungood.

    It seems as if you believe there is inherent anti-female bias in society. The study he wrote about seems to verify that.

    Yet instead of talking about the study, what it says about the problem, and what it says about us, you’re going to cut MS down?

    What the f is your problem here? Seriously.

  32. Cathleen Sessions says

    As a feminist myself, this is a picky little detail that doesn’t mean much. It is a report of a commentary on a study and as such is simply data. The response should be to study the data and replicate the study or do your own study on women’s voices.

    Shooting the messenger is not a civil response.

    This is not important in any meaningful sense in my opinion and I suggest that feminist concentrate on real issues and not obscure bits of random data that Michael Shermer himself would encourage you to be skeptical as you read it.

  33. Stacy says

    I do not see any reference to sex in the article, and I definitely do not see any sexist remarks at all.

    Who said there were any?

    Perhaps you are letting your own personal bias cloud your ability to read.

    Perhapsyou are doing so. Mote, beam, eye.

    But calling this simple restatements of information from another person’s work proof of Dr. Shermer’s sexist attitude is (blah blah blah)

    Ophelia Benson, comment #35:

    I know he’s reporting on the phenomenon, not endorsing it. I never meant to suggest he thinks it’s fine. I did mean to suggest he might not have noticed that it applies to women and that that’s the kind of thing that fosters stereotypes of the very kind he uttered…but that’s all

    Learn to read for comprehension, pitsters.

  34. says

    Oh sorry Stacy. I did not know I needed to go 35 comments down to find the real writing. I only bothered with what was said in the article. As for your other 2 points, implied, and I did no such thing.

  35. says

    @ 37 AoS: “It’s a little worse than ‘shrill’, I’m afraid.”

    Aye, on many counts.

    I do think MT’s Methodist upbringing sometimes did get in the way, as she says herself “We were Methodists, and Methodism means method.” Her methodological ways did leave much to be desired.

    However, it still did not give men the right to treat her abominably because she was a woman.

    For example, civil servants mocked her, saying she was a ‘narrow-minded nanny.’

    Heath’s Home Secretary, Reggie Maudling, called her ‘that bloody woman, who never listened’.

    Edward Heath humiliated her several times by telling her to’ shut up.’

    A Tory columnist presumed she was ‘totally out of touch with anybody but carefully corseted, middle-class, middle-aged ladies’.

    The Left-wing media were often disgustingly sexist. One newspaper maintained that she was the ‘Mike Yarwood in drag’.

    The playwright and TV critic Dennis Potter wrote that her ‘small pawing gestures’ and ‘glossy head tilted at a rather too carefully alert angle’, she reminded him of ‘everyone’s favourite celluloid bitch, Lassie’.

    The woman who had to change her higher-pitched voice to suit the status quo will be far more remembered in history, than her present male British counterparts, who were born with the silver spoon in their mouths. She rose above it, due to early stability in her life. So, it’s just too bad that she was mocked and jeered and constantly derided because she was a woman. Despite all to the contrary, the resonance of her voice will live on forevermore.

  36. Ian Liberman says

    I have read this posting and had I not known there was a controversy , I would assume that Michael was repeating and commenting on some interesting information on Mlodinow`s new book because there is actually more time being spent on Shermer `s comments regarding appearance than voice modulation. Sorry, but Ophalia Benson has some sort of over-sensitivity relating feminist issues in terms Michael Shermer`s writing because this is nothing but a minor analysis of one aspect of Mlodinow`s excerpts. Michael Shermer is a professional and an excellent writer and I do not believe he would indulge himself in sexist writing of any kind.

  37. embertine says

    Yep yep, I have done this too – initially subconsciously but eventually I recognised I was doing it and now it is entirely intentional. I work in a male-dominated industry and have done since I was 17.

    The slightly odd result is that I now have a contralto speaking voice and a mezzo-to-soprano singing voice, with registers that don’t overlap at all. If I want to sing as low as I speak, I have to do so in what is effectively falsetto. Feels extremely strange.

  38. Karl Wulff says

    “But do you see its relevance to you, yourself?” Should he? He was reporting on someone else’s work. This makes him a hater of women? I don’t think you’ve made the case. Maybe you have some additional evidence to indict him with, but it doesn’t appear in your post.

  39. raymoscow says

    Did no one watch Star Wars? The deep voice is usually pure evil.

    It sure keeps the troops in line, though.

  40. says

    Jeezus god – what has happened to people’s reading skills?

    I didn’t say he was a hater of women. I didn’t say the column in question made him one. I wasn’t attempting to make that case.

    Here’s the point, spelled out for the obtuse. Shermer’s column is about how subliminal influences affect our choices. I did say that in the post, in the second sentence.

    Shermer’s response to my Free Inquiry column was surprisingly blind to the issue of stereotypes and implicit associations (surprisingly for a professional skeptic). This column of his shows that he was aware of the issue only a few months ago. The point of my post was to say he should have been able to make the connection. That’s all. Not that he’s a hater of women, not that the column in question made him one. Der.

  41. says

    It’s funny. All the dissenting comments after my messages to the troll-socks – 41, 42 & 46, 43, 44, 48, 50
    – are by first-time commenters. Clearly someone blew a whistle. There’s a rapid response team in place for any time I mention Michael Shermer.

    Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer.

  42. says

    Have to protect the names of those poor men who are being ganged up on by the scary feminists. Or something like that.

    I myself find that my voice goes to a higher pitched when I’m stressed, which agitates people that I’m talking to.

  43. Larry Fine says

    Well, that was the stupidest thing I’ve read all week. And I’ve been reading doomsday people, so that’s where the bar is.

  44. says

    Please. There is no there there. Shermer was simply reviewing scientific research. Is it possible that it isn’t Shermer with the bias, but you?

  45. Bill L says

    I saw a link about this and followed it here. As an outsider who doesn’t really follow this sort of thing, Ophelia, ironically, seems to whine like a little girl throughout her article and comments.

  46. says

    All three of those are first time commenters, too.

    The whistle blew – oh noes a cunt-bitch said something about Michael Shermer!! It must not be allowed!!!!!!

    Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer. Michael Shermer.

  47. says

    Seriously, people. If you want to pretend to be sincere and intellectually honest, you should at least pretend you went back and looked into some of the archives before mouthing off like idiots. That’s the accepted protocol when you’re stepping into what’s obviously an ongoing topic. You’re so far gone you’ve lost the capacity to even properly ape genuine discussion. It’s really gotten kind of pathetic.

  48. says

    Oh, now I see where it’s coming from – Shermer posted about it on Facebook. He totally missed my point – and didn’t email me to get clarification! – and his fanboiz are following his lead.

    And he’s still calling it a witch hunt.

    It’s a public page, so anyone can read it.

    The feminist witch hunt continues! Ophelia Benson and PZ Myers have caught me again being a sexist: Trolling through my Scientific American columns Ophelia discovered that in my October column I report on Leonard Mlodinow’s book Subliminal, in which he reports on studies that report on people’s report of how they feel about politicians based on various subliminal cues, one of which is the pitch of the voice, lower judged as more truthful than higher (although looks matter even more). Guess what? My reporting of Leonard’s reporting of the studies’ reporting of subjects’ reports makes ME a sexist! Wiiiiiiitch. Seriously. I couldn’t make this up (note PZ’s comment on my own voice!)

  49. julian says

    I’m sorry, but for all of Shermer’s fanboys and girls, where did Benson call him sexist? Where did Ophelia call him misogynistic? Are you all privy to a pair of super magical glasses that allow you to see things I can’t?

  50. julian says

    Wow… so apparently this amazing pillar of the skeptical community can’t read worth two shits. Yeah, I can see why you don’t think his friends are arguing in good faith. If they were one of them would have pointed out how silly he’s being.

  51. says

    And I wasn’t “trolling” through his columns. I think he must mean “trawling.”

    “Wiiiiiiitch.” For fuck’s sake. Dude, you are not being called a witch.

  52. sheila says

    There’s a rough correlation between voice pitch and chest-cavity size. Low voices tend to go with large men. So there’s an even looser correlation between voice pitch and the ability to fight. I suspect on some subconscious level we respect deep voices in order to avoid a thumping.

    Of course that’s just a theory. I’m not pretending to have any data.

    But packing a punch isn’t really a useful skill for a modern politician, or indeed an atheist speaker.

  53. lpetrich says

    That’s likely what induced the evolution of that feature – a way of seeming big and impressive. Like male lions having manes.

    Is men’s facial hair a similar sort of feature?

  54. says

    I am a feminist and I found this post from Michael Shermer’s Facebook, so there’s my bias, but:

    Without any context, being primed by the “witch hunt” post, and the tone of the post I can easily see how it could be misunderstood upon first reading. Or, really, easily misunderstood without having being familiar with gender issues in general.

    I’m not going to disagree with your point–it’s valid and needs to be pointed out–but it honestly wasn’t clear until I read through the comments. And I think I’m lacking additional context: Does Shermer have a history of being oblivious to this sort of thing or was this isolated? I honestly don’t know.

  55. Stacy says

    OMD, this all seems so incredibly petty! With all the crap going on in the world, this is what people are waisting their time on? Seriously?!!!

    So we can count on you to say that to Shermer? Please start by pointing out to him that his complaint about being called a “misogynist” is incorrect and talk of a “witch hunt” is hyperbolic.

    Thanks.

  56. LP says

    Disclaimer: I haven’t read the other comments,

    but I still would like to say this:

    For fuck’s sake.

  57. syd says

    “He totally missed my point – and didn’t email me to get clarification! – and his fanboiz are following his lead”

    Kinda sucks, doesn’t it..

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