Funny research: men can’t make themselves sound sexier, women can

In a dark brown voice she said Lola, the Kinks sang, but if she/he would have sounded sexy? Well, new research shows it could be doubtful. The new study published in Journal of Nonverbal Behavior suggests that men cannot intentionally make their voices sound more sexy or attractive, while women have little trouble. Although the study has a relatively small test group, the results are quite interesting.  

From the press release:

“This ability may be due to culture and cuts across cultures and time,” says Susan Hughes, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Albright College. “There is a stereotype of what is a sexual voice in our culture — a low, breathy voice.”

 The research examines the patterns that emerge when men and women intentionally modify their voices to project four traits related to mate selection and competition — sexiness, dominance, intelligence and confidence — and how others perceive these manipulations.

For the study, 40 participants (20 men, 20 women) provided intentionally manipulated voice samples for the desired traits, plus a normal speech sample. Each sample consisted of participants counting from one to 10. Another 40 people assessed the degree to which each sample effectively projected the given trait.

The researchers found that women could make their voices sound more attractive, but men could not. “In fact, although not significantly, it got a bit worse when men tried to sound sexy,” says Hughes.

The difference may be rooted in mate selection, the study says. Women know that men place greater emphasis on attractiveness when choosing a partner, and that voice attractiveness can predict physical attractiveness. Thus, it is beneficial for women to sound sexier to enhance their value to potential mates and to stave off competition from rival females.

Spectrogram analyses of the samples revealed that both sexes slowed their speech to sound sexy/attractive, while women also lowered their pitch and increased their hoarseness. Ironically, men prefer higher-pitch females, but a woman will signal her interest in a man by intentionally dropping her voice, said Hughes.

The study found that both sexes can manipulate their voices to sound more intelligent. Women, however, could not sound more confident. Men could, but only when judged by female raters. This may be true, according to the study, because it’s important for men to project confidence to women (and for women to perceive it), since confidence can indicate financial and personal success, which women value in a potential partner. Men, on the other hand, may be more attuned to detecting male posturing and more inclined to underrate their competition.

Researchers were surprised to find that both men and women could equally and effectively manipulate their voices to sound more dominant. This may indicate a cultural shift. As more women enter traditionally male-dominated roles and leadership positions, they may choose to modify their voices to sound more formidable. As example, the study points to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who received vocal training to sound more domineering when coming into office.

The authors believe the study could have practical applications for vocal coaching, including in the fields of public speaking and acting, and in more effectively communicating with an audience.

Abstract of the research:

Evidence suggests that people can manipulate their vocal intonations to convey a host of emotional, trait, and situational images. We asked 40 participants (20 men and 20 women) to intentionally manipulate the sound of their voices in order to portray four traits: attractiveness, confidence, dominance, and intelligence to compare these samples to their normal speech. We then asked independent raters of the same- and opposite-sex to assess the degree to which each voice sample projected the given trait. Women’s manipulated voices were judged as sounding more attractive than their normal voices, but this was not the case for men. In contrast, men’s manipulated voices were rated by women as sounding more confident than their normal speech, but this did not hold true for women’s voices. Further, women were able to manipulate their voices to sound just as dominant as the men’s manipulated voices, and both sexes were able to modify their voices to sound more intelligent than their normal voice. We also assessed all voice samples objectively using spectrogram analyses and several vocal patterns emerged for each trait; among them we found that when trying to sound sexy/attractive, both sexes slowed their speech and women lowered their pitch and had greater vocal hoarseness. Both sexes raised their pitch and spoke louder to sound dominant and women had less vocal hoarseness. These findings are discussed using an evolutionary perspective and implicate voice modification as an important, deliberate aspect of communication, especially in the realm of mate selection and competition.

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