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Low-pitched voices more likely to be seen as dominant: UBC study

The Kardashians might be onto something with their vocal fry. A new study finds voices that go down in pitch early in a conversation are more likely to be viewed as dominant.

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian speak to reporters on September 14, 2015, in New York. The sisters often get a bad rap for speaking with vocal fry, but a new UBC study suggests people who lower the pitch of their voice in the first moments of a conversation are more likely to be viewed as dominant and influential.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian speak to reporters on September 14, 2015, in New York. The sisters often get a bad rap for speaking with vocal fry, but a new UBC study suggests people who lower the pitch of their voice in the first moments of a conversation are more likely to be viewed as dominant and influential.

The Kardashians often get a bad rap for speaking with vocal fry, but new research from the University of British Columbia suggests the famous sisters could be onto something with their low-pitched, gravelly voices.

The study found that people who lower the pitch of their voice in the first moments of a conversation are more likely to be viewed as dominant and influential. Those who were viewed as dominant were also more likely to convince others to go along with their ideas, the researchers found.

“We know from previous research that non-verbal behaviours like expansive posture has this effect … but what we found in this study is that it’s actually changes in vocal pitch that influence rank or dominance,” said Jessica Tracy, associate professor of psychology at UBC and the study’s senior author. “What this shows is that even really subtle things like the pitch of our voice … still has a big effect on how we’re perceived.”

For the study, researchers asked 191 participants aged of 17 to 52 to rank items they were told they might need to survive a disaster on the moon. The participants then worked in small groups on the same task, before they were asked to privately rate the social rank and dominance of each group member.

After recording the interactions on video, the researchers used phonetic analysis software to measure the frequency of each utterance. They also looked at how individual answers converged with the group’s final answer.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 274 participants aged 15 to 61 to listen to audio recordings of three statements, which were manipulated to either increase or decrease the pitch. They found that when the voice went down in pitch, people judged the person as wanting to be more influential, more powerful and more intimidating.

Based on evidence that high-pitched voices are associated with a sense of fear, the researchers hypothesized that low-pitched voices would have the opposite effect.

“That’s exactly what we found,” said Tracy, who is also writing a book on the subject called Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. “Both men and women, the extent which they spontaneously lowered their pitch from the first utterance they made, to the third thing they said, predicted ratings of dominance and high rank.”

While the findings might suggest that people could intentionally speak deeply to influence people, Tracy said it’s too soon to say if that strategy would work, given that the pitch modulations they analyzed happened spontaneously.

Still, it does seem to work for the Kardashians.

“Given that the fry involves a low pitch, it could be partly a dominance strategy,” said Tracy. “If so, I wonder if part of the reason people are so up in arms about it is because it’s women using a traditionally male strategy to get power.”

The study was published this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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