Can You Hear Me Now? New Study Suggests Politicians Use Similar Vocal Acoustics, Despite (Very) Different Campaign Messages

 /  July 8, 2016, 2:05 p.m.


Are you starting to feel like all politicians sound the same? Well, you are not alone.

Presidential candidates, regardless of partisan affiliation and gender, share similar speech patterns when addressing the public, according to new research from the University of California-Los Angeles.

While the content of the political speeches may differ, the new study reveals that politicians like Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump all use the same vocal modulations to appeal to audience members.

"Our hypothesis is that persuasive goals change when you address a different audience, and this change is reflected in voice acoustics," explained Rosario Signorello, a postdoctoral researcher at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

As it turns out, when Bernie Sanders rails against “the millionaires and billionaires” on Wall Street or when Hillary Clinton urges voters to get “Ready for Her” or even when Donald Trump declares that he will “Make America Great Again,” they are all using similar vocal frequencies and pitches to convey their messages.

In this way, Signorello concentrated not on the content of the candidate’s speech, but on the way he or she communicates it.

Signorello and his colleagues presented their latest findings at the 171st meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Salt Lake City last month. The UCLA researchers used a rigorous analysis of vocal acoustics, tone, pitch, and frequency to examine the physical components of charismatic speech patterns.

"This vocal profile seems to reflect leaders' use of vocalizations to display dominance while addressing speakers of the same social status," Signorello said. "They use voice to convey their authoritarian charisma."

The “charismatic voice,” as Signorello likes to call it, produces a “complex cognitive phenomenon” in listeners. This type of persuasive speech combines psychology, physiology, and, he says, physics.

“I am looking for universals in leaders’ voices, in terms of acoustical parameters, and the physics of the voices that they produce,” Signorello, who specializes in the UCLA Medical Department of Head and Neck Surgery, explained in a phone interview.

He and his team of vocal acousticians have previously investigated how the frequencies of speech affect whether voters perceive politicians as benevolent or authoritarian. Using vocal data from male political leaders in Europe, Signorello discovered that those who spoke at higher frequencies were interpreted as more benevolent and submissive, while those who spoke in lower voices were considered more dominant and attractive.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the drama of the 2016 presidential election inspired  Signorello to focus on presidential candidates because “they are the best public speakers, [and] they face every type of audience from elementary school to very old people.”

The researchers collected vocal stimuli from Clinton, Sanders, Fiorina, and Trump across three different types of speaking engagements: a campaign monologue; a political speech addressed to peers; and a non-political television interview.

First, the UCLA acoustics team examined the candidates’ vocal frequencies during political rallies in front of large audiences. They discovered that candidates used higher vocal frequencies and more variation in their vocal pitches to inspire excitement in the crowd.

Signorello noted that each candidate employed the same speaking strategy in front of such a large, diverse audience. “In this case, the leader is already recognized and has a leadership status that is higher than his audience,” he explained. “Given that the audience is very diverse, there are a lot of different expectations.” As a result, the candidates varied the frequencies and pitches of their voices identically to appeal to the diversity of the audience members.

The study also found that the candidates used a shared strategy when they addressed peers and fellow colleagues at smaller speaking engagements, such as Clinton’s speech at the United Nations, Sanders’s remarks on the floor of the US Senate, and Trump and Fiorina’s individual appearances at the New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit.

The researchers discovered that all the candidates spoke in lower pitches, with less diversified tones and a smaller vocal range. Signorello said that in these environments, “the audience diversity is very, very restricted,” as the listeners tend to be “mostly male listeners of a certain age.” He added, “The less diverse the audience is, the less diverse the candidates’ voices will be.”

Finally, in the third part of the study, which focused on nonpolitical television talk shows, the presidential candidates relaxed their voices and returned to normal speaking levels. While the content of these interviews may have varied, as Clinton chatted about being a grandmother with Ellen DeGeneres and Sanders talked about marijuana use on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the physics behind their vocal patterns was much the same. Without the need to excite large crowds or display dominance over peers, the politicians’ vocal ranges were much more even-toned. This makes sense to Signorello, who described how all four candidates returned to regular speech patterns without strategically “stretching” their voices.

The results of this research have important implications, not only for the intersection of physics and politics, but also for the study of gender in the 2016 presidential election.

Clinton has repeatedly come under fire for the perceived harshness and stringency of her rhetorical style. After securing major victories in the Democratic primary race, Clinton faced a barrage of criticism aimed at the “shrillness” of her voice. “@HillaryClinton in a nutshell: Calling for love and kindness—by SHOUTING!” tweeted POLITICO’s Glenn Thrush. “She shouts,” legendary journalist Bob Woodward later commented on MSNBC, adding that there was “something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating.”

Yet, according to Signorello, gender has little impact on vocal acoustics. “We found that the leaders—both Democratic and Republican, both genders—have a similar voice profile which is completely different than the other voice profiles in the other communication contexts.”

Signorello further shook off criticism that Clinton speaks like a man or shouts at the public. “There is no male or female,” he told the Washington Post. “If they were fair, they would say that Donald Trump speaks like a woman because he uses a very high-pitched voice too.”

Phone interview with Rosario Signorello, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, was conducted on June 8, 2016.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Liz Stark