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The Rules of Attraction May Turn on Our Voices
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The Rules of Attraction May Turn on Our Voices

Research News

The Rules of Attraction May Turn on Our Voices
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we have a story about a scientific study that asked a question that went something like this: Are you attracted to the sound of my voice? I'm not asking the question. It's the question in the survey. The researchers found that for some people, the simple sound of a voice appears to play a role in choosing a mate.

Sean Bowditch reports on the link between voice and sex.

SEAN BOWDITCH: Yes or no: would you marry this guy?

Unidentified Man #1: Ujambo.

BOWDITCH: How about this man? Sound sexy and smart?

Unidentified Man #2: Ujambo.

BOWDITCH: Would this guy be a good dad?

Unidentified Man #3: Ujambo.

BOWDITCH: So does voice pitch affect sexual relationships? That's what anthropologist Coren Apicella wanted to find out. She's a doctoral student at Harvard.

Ms. COREN APICELLA (Harvard University): What I'm basically interested in is mate choice and attractiveness and how that sort of translates into health and reproductive success.

BOWDITCH: Last summer, Apicella flew half way around the world with a tape recorder to study the Hadza people of Tanzania.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

BOWDITCH: The Hadza live close to the earth. Women dig for tubers and pick berries while men collect honey and hunt with traditional bows. Apicella wanted to know: Is there a connection between voice pitch and the number of babies the Hadza have? In the first phase of her research, Apicella invited a group of Hadza men into her Land Rover and recorded them saying hello in Swahili.

Unidentified Man #5: Ujambo.

Unidentified Man #6: Ujambo.

Unidentified Man #7: Ujambo.

Unidentified Man #8: Ujambo.

BOWDITCH: Then she played some of the voices for a group of Hadza women.

Ms. APICELLA: And I just asked them, you know, which one do you prefer.

BOWDITCH: Apicella found the women preferred the men with the lower voices. That paralleled another of her findings. The Hadza men with deeper voices also had more children than their squeaky counterparts. But she says voice alone probably doesn't explain that.

Ms. APICELLA: Why there's this relationship we're not entirely sure yet. It could be that these men have greater access to mates. And so maybe these men that have deeper voices have higher levels of testosterone, maybe they're better hunters and they're able to bring more food home to their wives.

BOWDITCH: And what did Hadza men prefer in a voice? It turns out they found the women with higher pitch most attractive. But surprisingly, the men said those same women wouldn't necessarily be the best food gatherers.

Ms. APICELLA: We found that the men actually thought the woman with the lower pitched voice, so the deeper voices were better gatherers.

BOWDITCH: Still, psychologist Susan Hughes says this research suggests you can tell a lot about a potential mate just from their voice.

Professor SUSAN HUGHES (Albright College): I think this study does speak to the fact that voices are signaling some biologically relevant information to potential mates.

BOWDITCH: Like fertility or the ability to put food on the table. But Hughes, a professor at Albright College in Pennsylvania, says it's not clear if men and women in all cultures would share the preferences of the Hadza. To find out, I decided to do my own study, just minus the science. I played a few of Coren Apicella's recordings for some young women in Washington, D.C.

Unidentified Man #9: Ujambo.

Unidentified Man #10: Ujambo.

Unidentified Man #11: Ujambo.

BOWDITCH: First reaction: Which one of these gentlemen would you marry?

Ms. SOPRITA CADIZIA(ph): Probably the first one.

Ms. ALISON DEZENSO(ph): I mean, the first one, I guess.

Ms. FRANCESCA ALESI(ph): The first one.

BOWDITCH: Why?

Ms. ALESI: Because he's smooth and not aggressive.

Ms. MICHELLE WENDY(ph): Can I hear them again?

BOWDITCH: That was Soprita Cadizia, Alison Dezenso, Francesca Alesi and Michelle Wendy. Interestingly, not a single one of them chose the man with the deepest voice. In fact, they all like the guy with the highest voice.

For NPR News - (high-pitched voice:) I mean, for NPR News, I'm Sean Bowditch.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That story was originally produced as part of NPR's Next Generation Radio Project.

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