Whether he’s playing the American President, Vitruvius or God, Morgan Freeman has one of the greatest voices of all time. It’s deep, soothing and powerful. But what makes a voice so authoritative? Is it as simple as pitch, or are other factors at play?
You had me at ‘hello’
Humans are quick to judge one another. We decide whether a person is trustworthy in a matter of milliseconds. Almost as fast, we decide whether we like someone we’ve just met. These judgments are based on looks, but there’s often another major source of information contributing to first impressions: a person’s voice. We’ve long known you begin forming impressions of people’s personalities from the first word they speak.
Research in the 1970s explored how people respond to voice recordings that had been manipulated in terms of both pitch and rate of speech. Listeners consistently judged high-pitched voices as less truthful and more nervous. Slow-speaking voices were also perceived as less truthful along with being less persuasive and more passive. It’s also worth knowing we judge phrases spoken with an accent to be less true than when we hear the same phrase from a native speaker.
In a recent study, 320 students listened to recordings of people saying the word ‘hello’ and judged the speakers’ trustworthiness, dominance, attractiveness and warmth. There was remarkable consistency among the listeners in how they judged the speakers. It seems we largely agree on what certain voice characteristics convey in terms of personality. Of course that’s not to say our assumptions are accurate.
What your voice says about you
It’s not just personality we judge by the sound of a voice. We are also pretty good at estimating height and age from people’s voices. In one study, judgments of a person’s age from either just a photo or from the voice alone differed by only one year.
Both men and women can accurately judge the upper body strength of a man from his voice, even if that man is speaking a language the listener doesn’t understand. Researchers argue we evolved to predict a man’s fighting ability from his voice alone.
We can also detect from people’s voices whether they are speaking to someone they love or just a friend. As an aside, people are also better at both picking out and ignoring their spouse’s voice amidst other competing voices; domestic deafness is a real thing!
The Barry White effect
Men speak about an octave lower than women. The lower pitch of men’s voices can be attributed to their 20% longer vocal cords (actually more accurately known as vocal folds) than women.
A large number of studies have found women find men with lower-pitched voices more attractive. Women judge deeper-voiced males to be more dominant, older, healthier and more masculine. Women have also been found to more easily remember what men with deeper voices say, compared with higher-pitched male voices.
In a study of traditional hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, men with deeper voices had more babies. But in a surprise twist, an Australian study found men with deeper voices had lower sperm quality than those with higher-pitched voices.
How about women? Men believe higher-pitched female voices belong to women who are more attractive, feminine, healthier and younger. And both men and women judge a woman’s voice to be most attractive at the time of the month in which she is most fertile.
The voice of authority
A number of studies on voting preferences have shown we ascribe authority to people with deep voices. To assess how voice pitch might influence voting, researchers recorded men and women saying ‘I urge you to vote for me this November.’ Each recording was then manipulated to produce both a higher-pitched and lower-pitched version of the original. When men and women were asked to vote for either the higher-pitched or deeper version of each voice, there was a strong preference for both men and women with deeper voices. In a different study, men and women both preferred women with masculine voices in a hypothetical election.
Margaret Thatcher famously underwent extensive vocal training at the Royal National Theatre with the aim of sounding more powerful and firm. You can hear an obvious difference in her voice before and after the coaching. Her trained voice is significantly deeper and her speaking slower, calmer, and more measured.
And the effect isn’t only relevant for politicians. In a study of 792 male CEOs of US companies, after taking into account a variety of other factors, those with deeper voices tended to run larger companies. These deeper-voiced men took home much bigger pay packets and stayed in the top job longer.
Is this why we love the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman – simply because his voice is so deep, and therefore authoritative? Perhaps. It may also be because we prefer listening to familiar voices. Either way, there are many happy people now relying on Freeman’s GPS navigation to get them where they need to go.
If you need a Morgan Freeman fix, here you are.
And if you’ve ever wondered whether Morgan Freeman’s voice would sound quite so charismatic after sucking helium, wait no longer.
Hi Jen, interesting stuff – although I know this was asked on Triple RRR when you spoke about this, I wasn’t clear on your answer – it seems to me that some of these preferences and judgements can be learned. Considering how much we learn from the moment we’re born, even things tested time and time again could still be possibly argued as a mix of learned preferences along with genetic ones. Considering that men in Australia with low voices have lower sperm quality, as you stated – surely this would go against the idea that it is purely a genetic preference women have for low voices? Low sperm quality would not equal more offspring… so would go against the idea of ensuring better genetic fitness. And were any of these studies undertaken with children? Undertaking them with adults repeatedly still gives respondents a good twenty years to learn a LOT of preferences for particular things – even preferences they display unconsciously. I’m keen to know your thoughts on these questions, if you get a minute! It’s fascinating stuff. Emily
Hi Emily, Thanks so much for your comment and the fascinating questions you raise. I’m not sure I know the answers to them but absolutely agree they are worth asking. The result of the Australian sperm quality study is an odd one. Pretty much all the other research I read suggested voice is an honest signal of male quality. And as a result we have evolved to be keenly tuned into the signals voices give us (age, status, strength, quality etc). But of course that doesn’t mean we don’t also learn along the way and incorporate new information. I agree research with kids would be really worth doing, but I didn’t come across any in my travels. I’ll let you know if I find any! Thanks again for your thoughts, Jen
I’ve always had a deep voice. People who don’t see me first often assume they are talking to a man.
I remember having lunch with a female neighbor of mine. We used the ladies room before leaving the restaurant. We talked while in the stalls.
While washing our hands, she asked if she had actually been talking to me. When I said yes, she said: “Really…you sounded like a man.”
Was she really listening to the “true sound” of my voice? Does anyone?
The wonderful thing I do like about my voice is, people do give me the benefit of the doubt. Imagine me being accosted on the street!
I’m cool with it though, because I’ve also been tagged as a singer, a radio personality, and even a voice-over professional.
Sounds like you’ve been blessed SparkyJen! Maybe there’s a radio career waiting for you? Thanks for reading and commenting.
Hi Jen…great write up. It made me think of how you picture someone you can’t see based on their voice – music be the common example. Every now and then I get surprised when I actually see the artist and think they don’t match at all. Typically I get the sex right, but with Macklemore’s recent downtown song, I was convinced it was a duo with a female… Then I saw the video. Just goes to show how wrong one can be…sometimes.
I hear you. I often get a complete shock when I find out what a radio/ podcast presenter looks like. They never fit the image I’ve unconsciously created in my mind.
PPS. Had to listen to Morgan on helium – priceless
A bussload of us from the same group of apartment buildings toured looking at buildings where new balconies had been added. Did we want balconies, at what cost etc.? I had an idea of who was on the bus so I “jumped” on hearing a question from the back of the meeting room after the tour. Who could that be with that deep, warm, confident, intelligent voice? I hadn’t met him but knew who he was and had seen him on his brisk walks with his white, white tennis shoes. A very small man, 87 years old, with a sexy voice. I was impressed – – – and a bit disappointed. Beth
Yes….. the old mismatch between voice and appearance experience! Extremely common I reckon. Thanks for reading.