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Being In Power Can Change How You Sound

New research shows hierarchy can shape your voice's pitch and loudness.

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When you have more power in a situation, your vocal cues can be surprisingly impactful.

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Imagine you’re negotiating to buy a used car or trying to get a classroom of kids to shush. A new study published in Psychological Science shows that how you speak can actually change what happens.

"People tend to not be very aware of how they use their voices," says lead researcher Sei Jin Ko. During their research, inspired by former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s voice coaching to sound more authoritative, the team found non-verbal signals of high-status people were more dynamic than those with a low status.

Researchers assigned college students either a “high” or “low” rank and then recorded them reading a passage.


“High” ranks were told they had a strong offer, valuable insider information, were on top of the work food chain, or were asked to think of a time when they felt powerful.

“Low” ranks were told they had a bad offer, no inside scoop, and were low on the work totem pole — or were asked to conjure up a time they felt powerless.

Students then read the same passage out loud as though speaking to someone they were negotiating with so that researchers could suss out if there were any acoustic differences with their baseline voices.

The results: People told they had a higher status were more likely to go up in pitch, sound monotone, and have varying loudness.

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Instead of maintaining a uniform volume, the high-ranked students' voices went in and out of loudness, says Ko.

"What was very exciting is that once you were able to induce people to feel powerful — or feel powerless — they seem to be able to show this change in voice that was remarkably similar to Margaret Thatcher," she says.

In a second experiment, listeners who had no information about each person guessed who was in power with considerable accuracy.

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So, despite the passage being the same, the subtleties in how a person sounds is enough to indicate status.

The researchers note the loose definition of the word "dominance" has led to some contradictory results about pitch. When separating hierarchy as power and control and dominance as physical superiority, however, the team's findings aligned with other studies regarding hierarchical pitch.

Before you start trying to change how you speak, Ko says it's difficult without vocal coaching.

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You can't just start sounding more authoritative tomorrow, but you can learn how to, just like Thatcher.

Some of Ko's new data shows that what people think high-power people do in speech doesn't match up with what they actually do. "It’s very interesting that [listeners] can detect it, but they’re not aware of what it is, really."

Whether or not you have leverage in a negotiation, vocal coaching can make you more aware of the acoustics you don't even think about.


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