What Science Says About “Sounding Presidential”

Lower-pitched voices fare better in elections.

Tess Watson / Flickr / Composite Image
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Brian Resnick
Sept. 16, 2015, 2:18 p.m.

In the an­im­al king­dom, in­di­vidu­als prove their dom­in­ance with dis­plays of power, stature, strength, and ag­gres­sion. We hu­mans like to think we’re more evolved than to look for those traits in a lead­er—that in­stead of physiolo­gic­al dom­in­ance, ideas and reas­on are what guide our de­cisions.

We like to think that, but “we are not so sep­ar­ate from the rest of the an­im­al king­dom as we might want to be­lieve,”  says Ca­sey Klof­stad, who stud­ies the in­ter­sec­tion of bio­logy and polit­ic­al sci­ence at the Uni­versity of Miami. “We are in­deed in­flu­enced—on some level—by subtle cues that are bio­lo­gic­ally de­term­ined.”

In par­tic­u­lar, Klof­stad stud­ies the way people re­act to polit­ic­al can­did­ates’ voices. He finds, con­sist­ently, that voters prefer politi­cians whose voices have a deep­er tone.

“Men with lower-pitched voices are per­ceived as stronger and more at­tract­ive,” he says. “For wo­men, it’s a little more com­plic­ated: Wo­men with lower-pitched voices are seen as more con­fid­ent and stronger. But wo­men with high­er voices are seen as more at­tract­ive.” For both males and fe­males, go­ing deep ap­pears to be a win­ning strategy.

Klof­stad demon­strated these find­ings in two re­cent pa­pers pub­lished in the journ­als Polit­ic­al Psy­cho­logy and PLOS ONE.

In the PLOS pa­per, he ma­nip­u­lated male and fe­male re­cord­ings of the sen­tence “I urge you to vote for me this Novem­ber” to range from a low bari­tone to a high sop­rano. Four hun­dred par­ti­cipants then took a listen to either the male or the fe­male voices, and were asked which voices they thought were stronger, more com­pet­ent, and older. They were also asked which voice they thought was more elect­able. The deep­er voices won. “The pref­er­ence for lead­ers with lower voices more likely re­flects [cor­rel­a­tions] between voice qual­ity and lead­er­ship cap­ab­il­ity that were rel­ev­ant at some earli­er time in hu­man evol­u­tion­ary or cul­tur­al his­tory,” the pa­per con­cludes.

In the Polit­ic­al Psy­cho­logy pa­per, Klof­stad wanted to see if any of these ef­fects play out in the real world. He took re­cord­ings of 796 can­did­ates in the 2012 House races and ana­lyzed the pitch of their voices. He then com­pared that data with elec­tion res­ults. The av­er­age voice pitch among win­ning male and fe­male can­did­ates was, over­all, lower than the losers, as you can see in the chart be­low.

Even con­trolling for oth­er factors that might ex­plain the out­come of the elec­tions—party af­fil­i­ation of the can­did­ate, dis­trict makeup, spend­ing, in­cum­bency—the dif­fer­ence voice pitch makes is still stat­ist­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant.

This pat­tern broke down when Klof­stad spe­cific­ally ana­lyzed data on races where males and fe­males were up against each oth­er. “When men and wo­men face each oth­er, men with lower voices were ac­tu­ally dis­ad­vant­aged,” Klof­stad says. It could be that men with deep voices may seem too ag­gress­ive next to a wo­man, but he has not tested that hy­po­thes­is in any ex­per­i­ment.

This re­search shouldn’t sug­gest that pun­dits should give up try­ing to call elec­tions based on demo­graph­ics, polling, and cam­paign is­sues. Those are more power­ful in­dic­at­ors of how people will vote than voice pitch. It’s just that “on top of that are these very thin sig­nals, these very thin, im­pres­sion­ist­ic judg­ments that we make,” Klof­stad says. “And we may or may not be aware of them.”

It’s not just voice. We, sub­lim­in­ally, prefer a whole host of phys­ic­al traits in our lead­ers. Those char­ac­ter­ist­ics in­clude:

A com­pet­ent face. A fam­ous 2005 study found that people can pre­dict the out­comes of elec­tions—to a de­gree great­er than just pure chance—by look­ing at can­did­ates’ faces. What was it about the faces? Faces that were deemed to be more “com­pet­ent” were more likely to win. A com­pet­ent face is the op­pos­ite of a baby face: square jaw, big eyes, fierce stare.

A tall frame. A 2012 ana­lys­is of all pres­id­en­tial elec­tions (ex­clud­ing those where the can­did­ates were the same height) found that “can­did­ates that were taller than their op­pon­ents re­ceived more pop­u­lar votes,” though they were not ne­ces­sar­ily more likely to win elec­tions. “Taller pres­id­ents were also more likely to be reelec­ted. In ad­di­tion, pres­id­ents were, on av­er­age, much taller than men from the same birth co­hort.”  

A happy face. “Just smil­ing in cam­paign pho­tos can sig­ni­fic­antly af­fect elec­tion out­comes,” a 2012 pa­per found in an ana­lys­is of 958 can­did­ates in Ja­pan­ese and Aus­trali­an elec­tions.

There’s no good reas­on why someone with a lower voice, or a taller frame, or a bet­ter smile would make a bet­ter can­did­ate. Lower voices may in­dic­ate high­er levels of testoster­one—and there­fore high­er levels of ag­gres­sion, and in­creased phys­ic­al­ity—but our demo­cracy needs sound thinkers, not brutes.

Hu­mans in the elec­tion booth aren’t the com­pletely ra­tion­al be­ings the philo­soph­ers of yore said we should as­pire to be. Keep that in mind while watch­ing the pres­id­en­tial primary sea­son un­fold. Why do we really like one can­did­ate over an­oth­er: Is it be­cause of their ideas, or be­cause of what our guts are telling us?

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