According to a new study, when we feel empowered, even in a superficial way (yes, you do hold all the marbles), various aspects of our voices change, and other people take notice.
By staging hypothetical negotiation exercises where participants were split in to high- and low-ranking positions, researchers from San Diego University and Columbia University found that listeners could detect which individuals had the upper hand. The study’s authors had 161 participants (who were almost exactly split between men and women) first read a passage in their normal voices to get baseline measures of their voices for things like loudness and pitch.
Those participants who were assigned to a high-rank condition were told a few things to get them in the right frame of mind such as “imagine that they had a strong alternative offer,” that they had “valuable inside information,” that they had “high status in the workplace,” or to remember a time when they had power. They were then presented with a short paragraph explaining their situation. Those in the low-rank group were given cues on the opposite end: they lacked a good alternative offer, had no inside information, had low status in the workplace, and so on. Each group then read aloud a passage pertaining to the hypothetical negotiation.
When a second group of participants listened to the recorded negotiation passages, and asked questions about how powerful they perceived the speakers to be, they were able to identify who was high- versus low-rank. Low-rank speakers were correctly identified as lacking power 72% of the time, and high-rank speakers were correctly identified 73% of the time.
The researchers found that high-powered voices grew louder, higher pitched, more monotonous and had less pitch variability, whereas those in the low-rank group dropped in register and had greater pitch variability when they spoke.
It seems as though if you want to come across as powerful, you’ve got to sound the part. So start practicing your Mm-mmms, your Mmm-hmms and your Hmmms (and watch your your barbershop quartet’s power dynamics shift accordingly).
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