Given the often adversarial, argumentative nature of legal proceedings, it may seem like a beneficial trait for male lawyers to have deep, authoritative voices.

Deep voices, after all, are considered evolutionary advantageous for men. Those who have them are usually perceived as more attractive, physically stronger, and socially dominating. We often choose political leaders who have deep voices, and there has been research showing chief executives with deeper voices are likely to have higher incomes and manage more prestigious companies.

But does the perception of a deep voice influence decision-making in courtrooms? New research suggests it does, and while a confident-sounding voice is a good trait for a male lawyer, a deep, masculine-sounding voice could actually be a disadvantage.

Linguist Alan Yu from the University of Chicago and legal theorist Daniel Chen of ETH Zurich in Switzerland led a team that examined the vocal characteristics of male lawyers arguing in front of the US Supreme Court. Their objective was to determine whether there was a direct correlation between the perception of a lawyer's voice, and his win-rate in court.

The team collected 60 recordings of male lawyers making the often used opening statement: "Mister Chief Justice, may it please the court". Two-hundred volunteers were then recruited and asked to rate how masculine they thought the speaker was. They were also asked to rate how attractive, confident, intelligent, trustworthy and educated they perceived the speaker to be, based solely on his vocal characteristics (this includes pitch, but also features such as rhythm, speaking pace, and pronunciation of certain sounds).

After accounting for the age and experience of the 60 lawyers, which could also factor into court rulings, the researchers' statistical analysis showed two traits could be used to predict the final decision: masculinity and confidence. In short, their data showed that lawyers rated as speaking with more masculine voices were more likely to lose at the Supreme Court, while those with more confident-sounding voices were more likely to win.

"It was a surprise to all of us," Yu told New Scientist. "We show that perceived masculinity and confidence constitute significant predictors of Supreme Court decisions," the authors wrote. Court proceedings are meant to be impartial.

In criminal proceedings, evidence is admitted and weighed according to well-defined legal rules, and defendants must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil proceedings, the threshold for decisions is guided by a balance of probability. But, as New Scientist points out, a variety of factors – including whether a judge has recently eaten – can influence decisions.

Although the study doesn't account for things like body language, or the attractiveness of the lawyers – which might also factor into their win-rate – it highlights the fact that our impressions of voices can bias our decisions, and that this is possible, to some extent, even in courtrooms.

The results of the study – which are part of a larger project looking at gender and voice in court proceedings – will be presented at the annual meeting of the Linguistics Society of America in Portland in January.

Source: New Scientist