Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Voice, Power and Charisma

More studies of the relationship between voice and power have appeared in my study, this time courtesy of a friend who sent me a clipping from The Wall Street Journal ("Hear, Hear! Scientists Map What Charisma Sounds Like," 12/2/14).

Controlling for meaning, and even using recorded speeches in French, Italian, and Portuguese, studies at UCLA found that speakers with lower-pitched voices were perceived by listeners as more powerful. A study at Duke University found that male CEOs with lower-pitched voices tended to manage larger companies, make more money, and hold their positions longer than those with higher-pitched voices.

Women in positions of leadership were not included in most of these studies, although a researcher at Duke reported that young women who adopted a distinctive low way of talking were perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive and less hirable.

Dr. Rosario Signorello, who conducted the UCLA studies, came to the conclusion that speakers could be trained to use their voices more powerfully, as singers and actors are trained. He did not, however, recognize in his analogy that the heroes in nearly every opera are tenors, with higher-pitched voices, whom composers have used for centuries to evoke the studies' charismatic traits: dynamic, charming, courageous, convincing, captivating, and visionary. Baritones and basses, men with lower-pitched voices, sing the villain, loser, or father roles. Given that Dr. Signorello used nearly four times as many women as men to rate his speakers' charisma, was the research somewhat skewed by that imbalance? Were the women perceiving the speakers in a fatherly, therefore more powerful, role?

Correspondingly, operatic sopranos, women with higher-pitched voices, are cast as the heroines, with lower-pitched contraltos playing witches, servants, young boys, or mothers. I doubt anyone participating in the study would want to assign any of those low-voiced characters very much power.

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