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Voicing Your Preferences For A Mate

Voice pitch may seem like a superficial way of judging other human beings, but when it comes to prospective mates and public servants, it makes a big difference.

Scientists know a lot about the physical traits that men and women find attractive in each other. For example, both sexes generally prefer symmetrical faces to asymmetrical ones. The reason seems to be that there’s a perceived connection between facial symmetry and healthy genes. And when it comes to breeding, most people would rather mate with a genetically healthy person than a less healthy one. Similarly, men generally prefer youthful looking women (presumably because youth is a relatively reliable predictor of overall health), while women prefer larger, stronger men (again, features that tend to be associated with good health).

Okay, so body size, youth, and symmetry play a part in dictating what we find attractive in prospective mates. Makes sense. But what about how we sound? Certainly, when it comes to romantic relationships, most humans would like to believe that since we’re more evolved than other animals, the words we speak to each other are more important than whether those words are delivered by a high-pitched or low-pitched voice. But most humans would be wrong—at least according to a recent study by researcher Yi Xu and his colleagues at University College London.

It turns out that as superficial as it is, voice pitch makes a big difference, largely because we associate it with something equally superficial: body size. Xu found that men generally prefer women with relatively high-pitched voices (which are associated with smaller bodies) and a little bit of breathiness (think Marilyn Monroe). Women generally prefer men with deeper voices (which are associated with larger bodies). However, women also seem to prefer a bit of breathiness (think Barry White), which Xu believes “softened the aggressiveness associated with a large body size.”

The Deep Voice Double Whammy

Clearly, voice pitch evolved—at least in part—as a way for the sexes to attract each other so we can perpetuate the species. But men’s deeper voices seem to take a two-pronged approach to mating. On the one hand, as we’ve discussed, the deep voice appeals to females. 

On the other, Penn State anthropologist David Puts asserts that men’s deep voices may have evolved as a way for males to scare off other males. That, of course, would increase the deepest-voiced men’s chances of mating by reducing the number of competitors for those sexy, high-pitched, breathy—and scarce—females. Isn’t it nice to know that we’re not a whole lot further along evolution-wise than gorillas and apes, who beat their chests and bellow to scare off other males?

Outside of the bedroom, people have a tendency to associate deep voices with “greater physical strength, competence, and integrity,” according to Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. To test this theory, Klofstad and Duke University biologists Rindy Anderson and Steve Nowicki had more than 800 men and women listen to pairs of voices saying the same phrase: “I urge you to vote for me this November.” 

The listeners were asked to indicate who they’d vote for if the owners of those two voices were running against each other. The deeper voiced “candidate” got between 60 and 76 percent of the votes. Curious as to whether the voice bias would hold up in real life, the three researchers went a step further and calculated what they called the “mean voice pitch” of candidates running for seats in the U.S House of Representatives in 2012. Those with deeper voices were more likely to win.

So what do mating rituals and elections have in common? Testosterone, which is associated with physical strength and aggressiveness. Both of those traits seem more relevant to mating. But they clearly carry over into politics. How else can we explain why California and Minnesota elected former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and former wrestler Jesse Ventura—two very strong, very aggressive guys—as their respective governors? And how else can we explain why deeper-voiced female politicians do better than their higher-pitched sisters?

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