In a new study published in Scientific Reports, researchers found that men who spoke more clearly were seen as more attractive by women for long-term relationships, but not necessarily for short-term relationships. They were also seen by other men as having higher prestige, but not necessarily more physically dominant.
Past research has shown that women find men with deeper voices more attractive and that other men see them as more dominant. However, we don’t know much about how men’s verbal articulation influences social perceptions. The authors behind the current research sought to help fill this gap in the literature.
“I have been teaching speech science and phonetics for the last ten years, and my disciplinary focus has been speech-language-hearing sciences,” said study author Sethu Karthikeyan, an associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at Pace University.
“My doctoral dissertation on changes in attractiveness of women’s speech across the menstrual cycle under John L. Locke relied on evolutionary principles, namely sexual selection; if a behavior positively affected mating success, reproductive rates, and perceptions of attractiveness or status, and analogous behaviors were observed in other primates, then it was reasonable to hypothesize that it was an adaptation sexually selected in our ancestral past. Since then, it has become difficult to disregard the question on potential adaptive functions of conspicuous behaviors.”
“Speech articulation has been studied previously in terms of social stereotypes (i.e., some versions are considered standard/non-standard; high/low socioeconomic status; friendly/educated), clinical symptoms (i.e., atypical omission or substitution of speech sounds in words), developmental milestones (i.e., some sounds are acquired later or earlier in childhood), foreign accents (i.e., a second language acquired later as an adult makes a speaker sound non-native in that language) and acoustic properties (e.g., sounds produced with or without vocal fold vibration; presence or absence of aspiration),” Karthikeyan explained.
“Little attention, however, has been given to speech sounds from an evolutionary perspective. In the evolutionary behavioral sciences, the voice and its use has received considerable scrutiny as a behavior that consistently affects mating-relevant perceptions such as attractiveness and status.”
The new study draws on previous research that found a correlation between men’s testosterone levels and their articulatory clarity, specifically in their pronunciation of the final /t/ sound in words. “Some of the men, who turned out to have relatively low levels of circulating testosterone, consistently spoke the final ‘t’ as a fully aspirated sound (such as the ‘t’ in ‘tea’), and others who had higher levels of testosterone, consistently withheld the release of the ‘t’ at the end of words,” Karthikeyan explained.
For their current study, the researchers sought to examine how these articulatory differences influenced perceptions of men’s status and attractiveness.
Karthikeyan and her colleagues had 45 heterosexual women listen to 80 speech samples from white, heterosexual males. After each speech sample, the women indicated their agreement with the statements: “This man is attractive for a short-term, purely sexual relationship” and “This man is attractive for a long-term committed relationship.”
In addition, 46 heterosexual men listened to the same speech samples and then indicated their agreement with the statements: “If this man got in a fistfight with an average male undergraduate, this man would probably win” and “This man is a prestigious person who is respected, admired, talented, and successful.”
A single speech sample consisted of the following series of 15 words: “beat, bit, bet, bait, bat, but, bout, bye, book, boot, boat, bought, bird, car, and ago.”
The researchers found evidence that speech articulation was linked to social perceptions. Aspirated /t/ speakers were perceived as more attractive to women in the long-term than in the short-term. Men, on the other hand, perceived aspirated /t/ speakers as more prestigious than physically dominant.
But unreleased /t/ speakers were not perceived as more attractive short-term mates or as more physically dominant compared to aspirated /t/ speakers.
“The way one produces speech sounds (and not just one’s voice) consistently affects social perceptions and these happen quickly and automatically,” Karthikeyan told PsyPost. “Specifically, our study found that American men’s aspirated ‘t’ productions were perceived as prestigious by other men, and women perceived these as significantly more attractive when considering a long-term stable relationship than when they considered short-term relationships such as one-night stands.”
“In sum, the prestigious sounds were associated with low testosterone and high long-term mating attractiveness. These judgments in our study were elicited within 6 to 15 secs. We discuss speech sound differences in men as a result of both early childhood interactions with other speakers and hormonal variations. We also discuss the possibility of individual differences which may make some speakers conform to articulatory norms more readily than others. Using an evolutionary lens, we were able to bring together findings from multiple disciplines.”
Like any study, the new research includes some caveats. The participants in the study were native speakers of American English. The results may not be the same for people from different cultures.
“One obvious limitation of the current study is that the aspirated ‘t’ sound is not found in all languages or in the speech of non-native speakers of English,” Karthikeyan said. “Another limitation is that we focused on only one sound spoken by a small sample of speakers and its effect on a small set of listeners. Nevertheless, the findings were in line with predictions, and therefore exciting. And the predictions were made possible because of the principles of evolutionary psychology.”
“As for future directions, examining more prestige markers in speech and language, especially in different cultures and languages, and looking into female articulatory patterns using the same theoretical basis is warranted. Also, studying speech and language in real life contexts, debates, dates, and group activities (or simulations of these), will be helpful to home in on interactions between voice and speech.”
“This is because speech in real life is a ‘costly’ signal that is hard to fake, as a number of factors from one’s voice to the choice of content, words and sentence structures, and facial expressions need to be managed simultaneously,” Karthikeyan told PsyPost. “Most of us can speak but depending on the competitiveness (and other demands) of the context, we can expect a wide range of individual differences in speech, which affect status perceptions.”
“I hope that the research article is read in its entirety,” she added. “A multifactorial perspective is important to understand any complex behavior fully; until that job is done, we cannot jump to firm conclusions. The best approach out there, as far as I know, that has the capacity to truly seek out and integrate findings from multiple disciplines is an evolutionary approach, especially one that takes cultural and linguistic variations, and individual differences seriously.”
The study, “Articulatory effects on perceptions of men’s status and attractiveness“, was authored by Sethu Karthikeyan, David A. Puts, Toe Aung, Jennifer K. Link, Kevin Rosenfield, Alexander Mackiel, Allisen Casey, Kaelyn Marks, Michele Cristo, Jenny Patel, Aliza Santos, and Glenn Geher.