Maybe Barry White missed his calling.
In a new study, potential voters inherently favored political candidates with lower-pitched voices.
“We’re not saying that this is the Holy Grail of how we understand how voting works, but it’s in there somewhere as something that affects how we vote,” says Dr. Rindy Anderson, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University and one of three authors on the study.
Anderson along with University of Miami political scientist Dr. Casey Klofstad and Duke University biologist Dr. Stephen Nowicki published their findings in PLOS One this month.
Through a series of mock elections, hundreds of participants from around the country were asked to choose between two candidates. Voters were told nothing about the candidates and were provided only a soundbite of each saying: “I urge you to vote for me this November.”
The candidates were, in fact, the same person. One of the sound clips had been pitch-shifted roughly 20 hertz higher. The other had been shifted about 20 hertz lower. Anderson says that, surprisingly, participants did not always notice the two voices were the same person.
The reason they used the same person, Anderson says, is because they didn't "want other differences between the voices to sort of creep in there.”
(We’ve created a version of the mock election using some of the same vocal samples used by Anderson and her fellow researchers.)
When the fake polls closed, “overwhelmingly, for both men and women, voters chose the lower-pitched voice,” Anderson says. The researchers found that their fake voters seemed to associate lower voices with strength and competence.
“Now, I’ll just say: No one has shown that lower-pitched voices correlate with better leadership abilities,” she says. “Which is actually what we’re interested in as voters.”
The politics of pitch is already a part of political mythology. Former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was criticized for her voice, which was often called “shrill.” She famously worked with a vocal coach to lower her pitch.
(Below, Thatcher in a February 1975 interview and then in a June 1987 interview.)
The vocal issues extend to male candidates as well.
“Rand Paul has a much more difficult challenge,” says Florida-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson. He points to the most recent Fox News Republican presidential primary debate in which the U.S. Senator from Kentucky got into it with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Wilson says Paul is clearly a smart guy with interesting ideas but “he has a squeaky kind of sound to him, and so when he was taking his attacks to both [Donald] Trump and [Chris] Christie... It was not a moment of oratorical glory for him.”
And while it’s not exactly common practice, Wilson says, if you’re producing a national campaign advertisement and can add some “richness” to a candidate’s voice or bump up the bass a little, there’s no shame in that.
“We live in a society now where everyone expects that between Photoshop and auto-tune and everything else that everything’s going to have a certain polish and a gloss to it,” Wilson says, “and I think that politics is no exception to that anymore.”
FAU biologist Rindy Anderson acknowledges that her research means that, vocally, female candidates are at a disadvantage by having naturally higher voices than men.
“We’re not trying to say, 'Oh, we found out why women are unrepresented in the halls of governance this is because they have higher pitched voices.' No, no, no,” she says. “The point is, it matters. We can demonstrate with data that it matters. That we are biased in this way.”
Anderson hopes people at least check themselves before walking into the voting booth. Is a candidate rubbing you wrong because of what they’re saying or how they’re saying it?
As for Barry White’s missed run at presidential politics? Maybe he was wise to stick to his day job.
“There’s a sweet spot for pitch, you can’t have too high-pitched a voice,” Anderson says. “And the same works for low-pitched male voices. There’s a point at which that just doesn’t sound right. There’s a middle ground that we seem to prefer.”