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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2016

What Does Your Voice Say
About Your Attractiveness?

Susan M. Hughes, PhD, Albright College (PA)
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Beyond the semantics of the words and language you speak, the sound of your voice serves as a stronger medium for the transmission of information than you may realize or expect. For instance, take speaking on the phone to a person that you have never met. That person instantly can detect from a simple “hello” whether you are male or female, a child or an adult, inflicted with a head cold, crying, and/or upset. In some cases, the person may even be able to decipher your general mood.
In addition to these basic assessments, the sound of your voice can reveal much more to a listener, and this can occur with minimal exposure to your vocalizations. For instance, evidence has suggested that voice samples can provide accurate information about a speaker’s sex (Lass, Hughes, Bowyer, Waters, & Bourne, 1976; Lass, Tecca, Mancuso, & Black, 1979), age (Hughes & Rhodes, 2010; Krauss, Freyberg, & Morsella, 2002), race (Lass et al., 1979; Walton & Orlikoff, 1994), height and weight (Krauss et al., 2002), body configuration (Hughes, Harrison, & Gallup, 2009), personality traits (Addington, 1968), and fertility (Bryant & Haselton, 2009). Additionally, subjects have been able to accurately match voice samples to a target’s facial photograph over 75% of the time (Krauss et al., 2002). Voice has also been used in clinical assessment for identifying certain neurological disorders (Gamboa, Jimenez-Jimenez, Mate, & Cobeta, 2001) and monitoring psychoactive drug effects (Scherer & Zei, 1988).
Expanding upon this list, your voice plays a particularly relevant role in your attractiveness and providing information to potential mates. Evolutionary psychologists have sought to identify what information the tonal qualities of a voice can convey to listeners and how voice can be used as a tool to attract and evaluate potential mates. The present article provides an overview of some of our findings.
Voice Attractiveness
When people think of attractiveness, what often comes to mind is a person’s physical appearance. Given that our visual sense is dominant, it would stand to reason why physical attributes that can be visibly seen are predominantly used to evaluate others’ levels of attractiveness. However, our primary mode of communication in social interactions does not exploit our visual sense, but rather our auditory system. The sounds, tones, utterances, intonations, and inflections used in communication also provide a host of cues that can allow us to decipher one’s attractiveness. Thus, in addition to physical attractiveness, voice attractiveness plays a crucial role in mate assessment.
People who have attractive voices tend to show more bilateral body symmetry, a trait thought to be a marker of developmental fitness and genetic quality (Hughes, Harrison, & Gallup, 2002; Hughes, Pastizzo, & Gallup, 2008). Women with attractive voices tend to have lower waist-to-hip ratios (i.e., body figures resembling more of an hourglass shape), and men with attractive voices tend to have broader shoulders relative to their hips, or a more V-shape body (Hughes, Dispenza, & Gallup, 2004). These ideal sex-specific body configurations are revealing of the influence of sex hormones that shape features that signal our reproductive maturity and potential.
Voices also relay important information directly related to mating success and sexual behavior; those with voices rated to be more attractive have had first sexual intercourse at an earlier age, a greater number of sexual partners, a greater number of affair partners, and a higher number of partners that they had intercourse with that were involved in another relationship (i.e., were themselves chosen as an affair partner; Hughes et al., 2004). Men with lower pitched, attractive voices have higher reproductive success, having fathered more children (Apicella, Feinberg, & Marlowe, 2007). The variety of features that correlate with how attractive a voice sounds lends itself to the importance that voice plays in revealing a person’s mate value, defined by evolutionary psychologists as “the total sum of the characteristics an individual possesses at a given moment and within a particular context that impacts their ability to successfully find, attract, and retain a mate” (Fisher, Cox, Bennett, & Gavric, 2008, p.157).
Manipulating How We Sound
People often change the sound of their voices to convey certain emotions, motives, and directives. But are we any good at it? My colleagues and I tested to see if people were able to deliberately and effectively change the sound of their voices to convey certain traits, and determine whether it was possible for others to detect those changes (Hughes, Mogilski, & Harrison, 2014). With little instruction on how to do so, both men and women could modulate their voices to sound more dominant and more intelligent to others. However, when asked to portray a “sexier” voice, men were unable to make their voices sound more attractive from their normal speaking voices, whereas women were able to do so. Alternatively, women were unable to portray more confident voices when asked, but men were. These findings can be interpreted using an evolutionary perspective; men tend to place more emphasis on attractiveness when finding mates (Buss, 1989), so it would be beneficial for a woman to effectively manipulate the sound of her voice to enhance her overall appeal to men. On the other hand, women tend to place an emphasis on a prospective mate’s earning potential and financial resources (Sprecher, 1989), and confidence appears to be related to a man’s earning potential, power in society, and other personality characteristics related to success (Buss, 1989). Therefore, it would be advantageous for men to have the ability to project a voice of confidence, and for women to be adept at detecting this trait in a potential mate.
Whether or not you deliberately try to change the sound of your voice, vocal manipulation especially tends to occur in contexts when attraction is involved. In an experimental setting, my colleagues and I asked men and women to speak on the phone to an opposite-sex person whose picture was shown to them and was previously rated to be highly attractive or unattractive (Hughes, Farley, & Rhodes, 2010). We recorded their voices and had independent raters assess the scripted voice messages they left for the person that they thought they were calling. Both men and women lowered the pitch of their voices when communicating with the attractive person of the opposite-sex as opposed to an unattractive target, and listeners who were blind as to the context of the voice samples thought the samples directed toward the attractive persons sounded more pleasant. The lowering of the voices and vocal modification was likely an attempt to sound more seductive or appealing for the person to whom there was an attraction (whether they were consciously aware of this or not), and voice was likely serving as a signal of romantic interest. It is interesting how easily discernable it was for others to perceive changes in one’s voices when speaking to attractive individuals. This perceptual ability to detect romantic interest of others via voice may be adaptive for identifying interested potential mates, detecting partner interest in others, and possible detection of partner infidelity.
Even in more natural settings, vocal changes tend to occur in the exchanges between mates. We recorded phone conversations between participants and their newly in-love romantic partners and same-sex friends, and obscured the content of the conversation to present only the paralanguage vocalizations to raters (Farley, Hughes, & LaFayette, 2013). We found that vocal samples directed toward romantic partners were rated as sounding more pleasant, sexier, and reflecting greater romantic interest than those directed toward same-sex friends. People were also able to directly discriminate between brief voice samples spoken to a romantic partner or friend. Likewise, other studies have also shown that romantic partners tend to use prosodic exaggeration, or ‘‘loverese,’’ when speaking to one another (Chang & Garcia, 2011). These findings point to the effectiveness of vocal change as a mechanism for communicating relationship status.
It may be assumed that you can simply change your voice to deceive others as to your level of attractiveness. However, I would equate transient vocal modulation as being equivalent to a woman wearing make-up. Making such changes certainly could enhance a person’s attractive appearance, but it will not drastically turn someone into a new person. We are all constrained by our genes and biology to an extent, and sustaining a deceptive appearance interminably (i.e., keeping the make-up on or constantly modifying one’s voice) is not very feasible. We are also a byproduct of our environments and our cultures (i.e., accents, local dialects, education, etc.), which pose additional influences on how we speak. Nonetheless, vocal coaching and training to modify one’s speech patterns in order to speak in a desired manner (especially for actors, politicians, and other public figures) has long been documented (Karpf, 2006).
What We Expect From Others’ Voices and Our Own Voices
There is a propensity to believe that people who have attractive voices will also have attractive faces (Hughes & Miller, 2015), and people seem to become vexed when voice attractiveness and physical attractiveness do not match one another on the same level (Zuckerman & Sinicropi, 2011). There is mixed evidence as to whether face and voice attractiveness correlate in reality (for review, see Hughes & Miller, 2015). Nonetheless, the stereotypical perception that voice and face attractiveness should be associated exists. This perception can be considered an extension of the what-is-beautiful-is-good stereotype, whereby people tend to ascribe more favorable characteristics to those who are attractive (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972). In this case, apparently what sounds beautiful looks beautiful, as well (Hughes & Miller, 2015).
What do you think of your own voice? People will often express some disdain when hearing a recording of their own voices and tend to react negatively when made aware that they are hearing a recording of their own voices but not when hearing recordings of others’ voices (Holzman & Rousey 1966). This reaction may be due to the fact that you seemingly do not hear your voice as others do; the perception of your live speaking voice is distorted because you hear it through both bone and air conduction, while others hear it through air conduction alone (Reinfeldt, Östli, Håkansson, & Stenfelt, 2010). Therefore, you may anticipate that your voice recording should sound more like it does in your head. This, in turn, may not enable you to accurately self-evaluate your own voice attractiveness or interpret your own vocal profile as others perceive it.
Despite the anticipation that your voice should sound differently than you expect, when tested experimentally, we found a preference for the sound of a person’s own voice recordings. When subjects were given an array of voice recordings of different individuals and were not told that their own recorded voices were included in the presentation, they rated their own voices as sounding more attractive than others rated their voices (Hughes & Harrison, 2013). Participants also rated their own voices as sounding more attractive than they rated the voices of others. These findings suggest that people may engage in vocal implicit egotism, a nonconscious form of self-enhancement that reflects the tendency to unconsciously react more favorably to anything marginally related to oneself (Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002). The preference for one’s own voice may also be explained by a mere exposure effect; even if your recording does not sound exactly like you anticipated, you have consistent exposure to your voice and hear every single word you say, so some level of that similarity or familiarity must be present.
The sound of your voice reveals far more information to others than you may realize. People are able to distinguish between subtle cues within a voice and, in turn, respond differentially. By manipulating the sound of your voice, you can further project intent and motives that are easily discernable to others. Although your physical appearance may be at the forefront of others’ evaluations and interactions with you, you cannot overlook the impact that your voice also has upon others, particularly within the realm of mate attraction and assessment.
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Susan M. Hughes, PhD, is an associate professor at Albright College (PA) and is the director of the Evolutionary Studies program at the college. She received her PhD in biopsychology at the University at Albany, SUNY, and taught at Vassar College (NY) for 2 years prior to joining Albright. Most of her research is in the field of evolutionary psychology, with an emphasis on the study of the human voice. Her research explores the idea that voice has evolved to be more than a natural mechanism for communicating semantic information through speech and the sound of an individual’s voice, irrespective of content, can convey a host of social, behavioral, and biological information about a speaker. In addition to her work on voice, she has published several studies related to mate assessment, attraction, attitudes, and behaviors from an evolutionary perspective. Her work in the field has received a considerable amount of both national and international media attention and has been featured in many popular media sources over the years.

Dr. Hughes has served as a faculty advisor to her Psi Chi chapter for currently 8 years, has published numerous papers with undergraduate students, and feels it is a privilege to have the opportunity to foster undergraduate research and learning.

Send correspondence to: Susan M. Hughes, PhD, Psychology Department, Albright College, 13th and Bern Streets, Reading, PA 19612

Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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