You Take the High Road

Voters Tend to Favor Candidates with Lower-Pitched Voices
September 29, 2015 

An astounding number of candidates have packed a gigantic race for the Republican Party presidential nomination. As they deliver speeches and take shots at each other to jockey for position, most people are asking, “Who is going to win?”

Many analysts make careers out of trying to answer questions like this, and they regularly appear on the news to compare candidates by their preferred metrics: poll results, political resumes, the candidates’ stances on important issues or whose super PAC raised the most money.

Researchers from Duke University and the University of Miami, however, say the metric to watch may not be who had the best zingers in the most recent debate, but how bassy those zingers were.

According to a new study published in the journal PLOS One, voters tend to favor candidates with deeper voices. A series of two experiments showed lower voices signified stronger, older, more confident and more electable candidates in the minds of average voters.

First, Miami political scientist Casey Klofstad and Duke biologists Rindy Anderson and Steve Nowicki surveyed 800 people about which candidate they would vote for given the age and gender data for a ticket of hypothetical candidates.

People were most likely to vote for men in their 50s and women in their 40s. More often than not, when these types of candidates were pitted up against those in their 30s or 60s, the 40 and 50-year-olds got the vote.

This experiment was originally designed to test whether voice preference lined up with a voters’ perception of candidate age, and indeed the 40s and 50s are the time when a human’s voice is at its lowest pitch.

In the second experiment one man and one woman were recorded saying “I urge you to vote for me this November.” The pitch of their voices was then raised and lowered using computer software. Eight hundred participants (400 men and 403 women) listened to the high and low versions of either the male or female voice back to back.

The subjects then had to decide which candidate (high or low-voiced) they would vote for, as well as which one was stronger, older and more confident.

Depending on the gender conditions, the participants voted for the deep-voiced version between 60% (women voting for men) and 76% (women voting for women) of the time.

For all the discussions of candidates’ records, policies and personalities helping or hindering them in a run for office, a deep voice is not the only objective physical attribute that predicts a successful campaign. Two-thirds of American presidential elections are won by the taller candidate. Out of the 15 GOP presidential primary candidates whose height is posted online, 10 are taller than the average American for their gender and two more are of average height. Hillary Clinton is also taller than the average American woman.

As much stock as voters consciously put into deciding which candidate has the best economic plan or best foreign policy chops, we subconsciously evaluate leaders based on what many scientists refer to as the “caveman instinct.”

Like much of the animal world, physical prowess was the deciding factor for leadership among early humans. A taller, bigger caveman was more likely to have the strength to be a good hunter and protector, so other cavemen would follow him. Many psychologists believe some of that thinking still resides in human subconscious, which is why we have had so many tall presidents.

Klofstad’s voice survey attempted to address some hypotheses as to what a deeper voice might signal to the human subconscious. For example, his first experiment showed that deep voices predicted a certain age range (40s and 50s) so perhaps if deep voices are associated with age, early humans would gravitate toward leaders of this age: old enough to know the best strategies for survival but young enough to be effective.

Deep voices also tend to correlate with higher testosterone levels in both men and women. Higher testosterone levels in turn correlate with greater aggression and physical strength: both valuable traits to an early human society.

In the researchers’ second experiment, where the participants had to listen to the high and low-voiced candidates, the participants in general thought the lower-voiced candidate was older, stronger and more confident. That said, the results showed that what really influenced which way a participant would vote was what they thought about a candidate’s strength and confidence, as opposed to their age.

There are obviously exceptions to our ‘caveman instincts.’ In 2012, 6’4” Rick Santorum lost in the primaries to 6’2” Mitt Romney, who lost the general election to 6’1” Barack Obama. In 2000 George W. Bush defeated Al Gore, and listening to the two speak, Al Gore has a lower voice.

Our conscious thoughts on policies and issues have a huge part to play in how we vote, otherwise a Shaquille O’Neal/Charles Dance ticket would be unstoppable. The data, however, show that there is definitely a bias towards candidates with particular physical attributes.

The key, Klofstad says, and the purpose of this research is to learn what that bias is, let voters know so they can keep it in mind as they vote, and to determine whether that bias is helping or hindering the process of picking the best leaders.

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.