Male voices are deeply pitched more to intimidate the competition than to attract female mates, according to a study of several primates, including humans.

“We wanted to determine if sexual selection had produced sex differences in humans and closely related species,” says David A. Puts, associate professor of anthropology at Penn State and author of a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“If similar vocal sex differences appear across species with similar levels of mating competition, then we infer that sexual selection produced these sex differences.”

Researchers conducted three studies and found that while a deep-pitched male voice was seen as dominant by other males, it had less success attracting females. Further, sexual dimorphism of vocal pitch—how different the two sexes were—was greater in humans than in any other ape species measured in their study.

beardy man sings

Men’s beards and peacock tails

“We find that masculine traits in humans are not the same as, say, in peacocks where the beautiful tail attracts a mate,” Puts says. “For example, beards make men more dominant looking, scarier, and seemingly more dangerous, but most women prefer clean-shaven men.”

Human male traits imply physical aggression and formidability and seem to provide competitive advantages in fighting or threatening other men more than they help attract women.

Researchers first looked at the fundamental frequency of male voices across the anthropoid primates—those most closely related to humans, including gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Fundamental frequency is the average rate of vocal-fold vibrations. They used 1,721 vocal calls, free of background noise, from individuals of known species, sex, and adult status.

They used mating systems—monogamous, promiscuous, or polygynous—as a proxy for the intensity of sexual selection. Promiscuity differs from monogamy and polygyny in that females more frequently have multiple sex partners, which makes predictions of sexual dimorphism more difficult. In polygynous species, some males can monopolize many mates leaving other males unmated. This tends to make sexual selection more intense in polygynous species than in monogamous ones. Anthropologists classify humans as moderately polygynous.

The researchers found that the differences in fundamental frequency between sexes decreased toward monogamy and increased toward polygyny.

Rating voices

Next the researchers looked at 258 female and 175 male college students who read a standard passage that was recorded without any background sounds. Then 558 women and 568 men rated the recordings. Each female recording was rated by 15 men for the potential for short- and long-term romantic attractiveness using a standard rating system. Each male recording was rated by 15 men for dominance and 15 women for short- and long-term romantic attractiveness.

Fundamental frequency predicted men’s perceived dominance over other men, and to a lesser degree their attractiveness to women, but it didn’t predict women’s attractiveness to men for either short- or long-term romantic relationships.

The researchers then recorded 53 women and groups of 62 and 58 men and tested their saliva for cortisol and testosterone. In women, there was no connection between vocal pitch and either cortisol or testosterone. But, “for both groups of men, high testosterone levels and low cortisol levels occurred in men with low fundamental vocal frequency” Puts says.

This is a pattern that has been shown to predict male dominance, attractiveness, and immune function.


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: A’ndrea Elyse Messer-Penn State
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