I read this fascinating book over the weekend, Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. Here are a couple of things you might find interesting.
Likewise, watching a group of people, one will quickly notice which individuals act with the greatest confidence, attract the most glances and nods of agreement, are least reluctant to break into the discussion, speak in a softer voice yet expect everybody to listen (and laugh at their jokes!), voice unilateral opinions, and so on. But there are far more subtle status clues. Scientists used to consider the frequency band of 500 hertz and below in the human voice as meaningless noise, because when a voice if filtered, removing all higher frequencies, one hears nothing but a low-pitched hum. All words are lost. But then it was found that this low hum is an unconscious social instrument. It is different for each person, but in the course of a conversation people tend to converge. They settle on a single hum, and it is always the lower status person who does the adjusting. This was first demonstrated in an analysis of the Larry King Live television show. The host, Larry King, would adjust his timbre to that of high-ranking guests, like Mike Wallace or Elizabeth Taylor. Low-ranking guests, on the other hand, would adjust their timbre to that of King. The clearest adjustment to King’s voice, indicating lack of confidence, came from former Vice President Dan Quayle.
The same spectral analysis has been applied to televised debates between the presidential candidates. In all eight elections between 1960 and 2000 the popular vote matched the voice analysis: the majority of people voted for the candidate who held his own timbre rather than the one who adjusted. In some cases, the differences were extreme, such as between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. And only in 2000 did a candidate with a slightly subordinate voice pattern, George W. Bush, get elected. But this was not really an exception to the rule because, as Democrats will relish pointing out, the popular vote actually went to the candidate with the dominant voice pattern, Al Gore.
Anyone who works with animals is used to their uncanny sensitivity to body language. My chimpanzees sometimes know my mood better than I do: it’s hard to fool an ape. One reason for that is the absence of distraction by the spoken word. We attach such importance to verbal communication that we lose track of what our bodies say about us.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks described a group of patients in an aphasia ward convulsed with laughter during a televised speech by President Reagan. Incapable of understanding words as such, aphasia patients follow much of what is being said through facial expressions and body movement. They are so attentive to body nonverbal clues that they cannot be lied to. Sacks concluded that the president, whose speech seemed perfectly normal to the non-patients around, so cunningly combined deceptive words and tone of voice that only the brain damaged were able to see through it.