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The sound of power: Conveying and detecting hierarchical rank through voice. (2014)

“Holding power can fundamentally change the way you speak, altering basic acoustic properties of the voice. Listeners can pick up on these vocal cues to know who is really in charge.

Ko, S. J., Sadler, M. S., & Galinsky, A. D. (2014)
Psychological Science, 0956797614553009

People tend to focus on our words – what we say – when we want to come across as powerful to others. This research suggests that basic acoustic cues – how we say it – also play an important role.

It was former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher that inspired the researchers to investigate non-language-related properties of speech and the relationship between acoustic cues and power.

“It was quite well known that Thatcher had gone through extensive voice coaching to exude a more authoritative, powerful persona,” explains lead researcher Sei Jin Ko.

“We wanted to explore how something so fundamental as power might elicit changes in how a voice sounds, and how (those changes affect) the way listeners perceive …the speakers.”

Students read a passage aloud to capture baseline acoustc properties. They were then randomly assigned ‘high rank’ or ‘low rank’ status and briefed accordingly for a negotiation role play. The voices of students in each group changed significantly.

The vocal clues did not go unnoticed: a third group of listeners were able to categorize whether a speaker had high or low rank with considerable accuracy.

Access the full paper here: The sound of power

Read a review (used as the basis for our synopsis) here: People know high power voices when they hear them


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