Listen, follow me: Dynamic vocal signals of dominance predict emergent social rank in humans

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2016 May;145(5):536-547. doi: 10.1037/xge0000166. Epub 2016 Mar 28.


Similar to the nonverbal signals shown by many nonhuman animals during aggressive conflicts, humans display a broad range of behavioral signals to advertise and augment their apparent size, strength, and fighting prowess when competing for social dominance. Favored by natural selection, these signals communicate the displayer's capacity and willingness to inflict harm, and increase responders' likelihood of detecting and establishing a rank asymmetry, and thus avoiding costly physical conflicts. Included among this suite of adaptations are vocal changes, which occur in a wide range of nonhuman animals (e.g., chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys) prior to aggression, but have not been systematically examined in humans. The present research tests whether and how humans use vocal pitch modulations to communicate information about their intention to dominate or submit. Results from Study 1 demonstrate that in the context of face-to-face group interactions, individuals spontaneously alter their vocal pitch in a manner consistent with rank signaling. Raising one's pitch early in the course of an interaction predicted lower emergent rank, whereas deepening one's pitch predicted higher emergent rank. Results from Study 2 provide causal evidence that these vocal shifts influence perceptions of rank and formidability. Together, findings suggest that humans use transient vocal changes to track, signal, and coordinate status relationships.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Canada
  • Communication*
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Group Processes*
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Dominance*
  • Students / psychology
  • Young Adult