No matter how sophisticated and complex we get as a species, we're still influenced by evolutionary drives millions of years in the making. Case in point: A new study argues that human women are seemingly drawn to deep male voices. But is this study reliable, or just playing on our preconceptions about how men and women relate to each other?
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen ran an experiment in which 45 women were shown an image, which was then named by a recorded voice. This recording was either of a low pitched male, a high pitched male, or a female voice that had been manipulated to sound like a male. Afterward, they were then shown a pair of similar images - one they had seen and one they hadn't - and asked to identify which one they had been originally shown. They also rated which voices were their favorite. They later ran a similar experiment using real male and female voices and another 46 women.
In both cases, the results were striking. The women consistently preferred the deep-voiced males, and they were more likely to pick the right object when they had originally seen it paired with a low pitched male. Researcher David Smith explains:
"Our findings demonstrate that women's memory is enhanced with lower pitch male voices, compared with the less attractive raised pitch male voices. Our two experiments indicate for the first time that signals from the opposite-sex that are important for mate choice also affect the accuracy of women's memory."
Now let's consider these results with some healthy skepticism - 45 (or 91, for that matter) isn't a ton of people, and it's possible these results won't prove repeatable. And crucially, it appears this experiment only involved female participants, with no corresponding study testing the male reaction to different voices. That's potentially a pretty huge oversight, and while it doesn't immediately invalidate this research, it does mean we have no way of knowing whether this apparent attraction to deep voices is really a gender-specific trait, or one universal to all humans.
For that matter, even if the basic finding of this experiment is accurate - that women tend to focus on and better remember deep male voices than any other type - we can't necessarily conclude why that is. There's certainly a potential evolutionary explanation for it, but it's also possible that this is just a result of a particular cultural or even individual context, and not something that's true of people in general. And whatever the case, we're still only talking broad tendencies and generalities here - this is definitely not some sort of hard-and-fast rule.
These results do fit well with previous experiments that suggest women prefer "masculine" traits in men. It's generally thought that this is a holdover from our ancient evolutionary past, where females would look for mates with the best genetic quality. An abundance of testosterone is a good indicator of favorable genetics and it's closely associated with various physical and emotional traits, such as a deep voice and aggression. Since early humans couldn't directly see each other's genetic quality, they evolved proxies like these to detect high testosterone levels. Or so the theory goes.
What's particularly interesting is that this study shows that women's memory actually becomes more accurate in the presence of low pitched voices. Dr. Kevin Allan explains why this might be:
"We think this is evidence that evolution has shaped women's ability to remember information associated with desirable men. Good memory for specific encounters with desirable men allows women to compare and evaluate men according to how they might behave in different relationship contexts, for example a long-term committed relationship versus a short-term uncommitted relationship. This would help women to pick a suitable partner, and that's a particularly important ability to have because the costs of poor mate-choice decisions can be severe."
Given all the flaws we've already mentioned in this research, Allan's conclusions seem oddly specific. Before deciding that good talkers are more manly, it might behoove this researcher to determine how men respond to deep voices, and how both sexes respond to deep tones more generally. Trying to cram this finding into a story about sexual selection may actually be deafening us to a deeper truth about the function of sound in the human brain.
Via Memory & Cognition. Shutterstock image by Catalin Petolea.