If you are looking to gain a woman’s trust, it’s best not to sound like Barry White.

A new University of Guelph study has revealed that women perceive men with lower-pitched voices to be less trustworthy, particularly when they are saying anti-social words such as “corrupt,” “fraud” or “cheat.”

“We found voice pitch definitely matters when you are trying to persuade someone,” said Jillian O’Connor, who, as a post-doc, co-authored the study with U of G psychology professor Pat Barclay and is now a psychology professor at Concordia University. “It’s not just what you say but how you say it when it comes to people’s perception of trustworthiness. This finding is applicable to a number of circumstances, from CEOs delivering bad news to their employees to politicians bashing an opponent in an attempt to gain support.”

Published recently in the British Journal of Psychology, the study examined the role of voice pitch in perceptions of trustworthiness and attractiveness.

“We wanted to look at to what extent we infer certain traits about others based on voice pitch,” said Barclay.

In previous research, O’Connor and Barclay asked women to listen to a male voice manipulated to sound higher or lower than average, and then asked which voice they found more attractive.

O’Connor said the women found the lower-pitched voice more attractive, which makes evolutionary sense.

“Having a low-pitched voice is connected to increased levels of testosterone, and men with increased levels of testosterone tend to be healthier and have a higher level of status,” she said. “This means the potential of having successful offspring is higher if women mate with these men, so it makes sense that women would find them more attractive.”

To see how someone’s voice influenced listeners’ perception of what they said, the researchers asked women to listen to pro- and anti-social words spoken in different pitches. Participants were asked to rate how attractive and trustworthy the person sounded.

headshot of Prof Pat Barclay with water in the background
Prof. Pat Barclay

“It’s known low voice pitch in both men and women is perceived as untrustworthy,” said Barclay. In earlier research, he and O’Connor found people were less likely to entrust money to men and women with lower-pitched voices. “But we wanted to see if pitch matters even when we are speaking socially meaningful words, and it turns out it does.”

When participants heard anti-social words such as “cheater,” “fraud,” “liar” and “corrupt” spoken in a lower pitch, they were more likely to rate the speaker as untrustworthy and less attractive than when the same words were spoken in a higher vocal register.

However, this influence applied only to negative words. The researchers found perceptions of trustworthiness or attractiveness were unaffected by voice pitch when listeners heard pro-social words such as “caring,” “fair,” “honest” and “helpful.”

People’s tendency to perceive lower voices as less trustworthy is also rooted in our subconscious, said O’Connor.

Although women are attracted to men with lower-pitched voices, high levels of testosterone are also associated with untrustworthy behaviour, she added.

“It’s been shown that men with higher testosterone are more likely to exploit their partner for financial gains and engage in infidelity. There’s an unconscious drive we innately pick up on, these kernels of truth that may not be correct 100 per cent of the time but push us in the right direction if we listen to them.”

Barclay said these findings have implications for any scenario involving anti-social language when the speaker wants to gain audience trust.

“If a company is going to deliver bad news to employees or the government has to communicate information to the public in the midst of a crisis, then it might be best to have someone with a higher-pitched voice to give this message,” he said. “These findings show that our voice pitch cues subconscious perceptions.”



Jillian O’Connor: joconn03@uoguelph.ca

Prof. Pat Barclay: barclayp@uoguelph.ca