The voice in control: Exploring auditory communication in persuasion contexts

In a Dutch radio commercial, a male voice is asking listeners not to think about anything for a moment. Then, the recognizable commercial tune of McDonalds is played and the voice-over asks: “You did think about something, didn’t you?” The commercial was launched in 2013 and rose awareness about the particular effectiveness and intensity of radio commercials. Even in today’s visually oriented world full of printed text, fonts, colors, and images, the power of auditory stimuli persists. Besides “sound logos” such as the one used by McDonalds, voices can be powerful auditory stimuli. Remember, for instance, the podcast-voice of Evy, that supports thousands of people in starting to run and accomplishing their sportive goals.

The influence of voices

“Even though most runners have never seen Evy, they have created a mental image of her.”

Spoken words provide us with information beyond that of written words alone. You might have noticed the importance of voices and other auditory stimuli in daily life yourself. Maybe you have experienced how easily we form impressions of other people based on their voice alone, for example while having a telephone conversation with an employee of a help-desk or while listening to people chatting in the train. By hearing their voice alone, you already have an impression of where they come from, what they may look like, what they might be wearing and maybe even whether they prefer playing soccer over reading books. And even though most of the runners have never seen Evy, they probably have created a mental image of her. Indeed, a voice is a very rich instrument of communication and provides us with multiple layers of information besides the actual content, for instance, about the speaker’s appearance, emotional state, or personality (Brown & Bradshaw, 1985). There is ample scientific support that stresses the importance of voice in advertising contexts, and the relevance of voice is also acknowledged in other areas of (social) psychology, for example in interpersonal communication, persuasion, personality impression, and stereotyping. For instance, a loud voice is associated with extraversion (Scherer, 1978) and slow speakers are considered less credible and trustworthy (Chebat, Hedhli, Gélinas-Chebat, & Boivin, 2007).

Why is this worth investigating?

Voice characteristics, for example voice pitch, speech rate and intonation, may influence the extent to which people listen to the message and are persuaded by the information. Up to this point however, experimental research in psychology that addresses this question by manipulating these voice characteristics is limited (e.g., Chebat et al., 2007). Yet, while the auditory mode of communication has been neglected in both research and practice, it is actually becoming more and more relevant in today’s world. For example, new technological developments facilitate the use of auditory channels. Sound is now included in easily portable MP3 players and smartphone applications. People listen to the radio or Audiobooks while they are travelling and while engaging in a running activity, people are supported by the voice of Evy who compliments them on their progress. This shows that auditory forms of communication are applied in the field of health persuasion, for example by supporting regular physical activity or by providing information about how to eat sufficient fruit and vegetables. Usually, to stimulate people to behave in a more healthy way, information is communicated through text and images, presented as a reminder on a package of cigarettes, or displayed as a health message on television. Yet with the potential of MP3, health information can reach a large audience via just auditory channels. To communicate auditory health information effectively, it is necessary to unravel processes in auditory health persuasion, especially related to the conditions under which it is effective and for whom.

What do we know?

For instance, compared to textual information, auditory communication is characterized by an increased sense of “social presence” (Chaiken & Eagly, 1983). In other words, when you hear someone through your headphones it feels as if this person is talking directly to you. With this in mind, it is possible that for some people the information might become very threatening (“too much”), which negatively affects the persuasive process. These people might benefit more from reading the information themselves. In an experimental study, we have investigated how voice characteristics can contribute to persuasive processes in the specific context of auditory health persuasion. We found that a high level of intonation led to a decrease in persuasion compared to a moderate level of intonation, but only in people who perceived their own health as good (Elbert & Dijkstra, in press). Possibly, these people respond defensively because they don’t see the necessity to change.

There is more…

At the social psychology department in Groningen, we have now developed a smartphone application to stimulate fruit and vegetable intake among Dutch adults. For six months, respondents will be exposed to either auditory or textual tailored information. With this, we hope to gain more understanding of auditory persuasion processes in general and the particular effectiveness of textual and auditory tailored health information. This knowledge helps us to develop health interventions and (online) health education while making the best use of the auditory mode of communication.



Brown, B.L., & Bradshaw, J.M. (1985). Towards a social psychology of voice variations. In H. Giles, & R. N. St.Clair (Eds.), Recent advances in language communication & social psychology (pp. 144-181). London, England: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Chaiken, S., & Eagly, A.H. (1983). Communication modality as a determinant of persuasion: The role of communicator salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 2, 241-256. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.45.2.241

Chebat, J., Hedhli, K. E., Gélinas-Chebat, C., & Boivin, R. (2007). Voice and persuasion in a banking telemarketing context. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 104, 419-437. doi: 10.2466/PMS.104.2.419-437

Elbert, S.P. & Dijkstra, A. (in press). An experimental test of the relationship between voice intonation and persuasion in the domain of health. Psychology & Health. doi:10.1080/08870446.2014.903482

Scherer, K. (1978). Personality inference from voice quality: the loud voice of extraversion. European Journal of Social Psychology, 8, 467-487. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2420080405


NOTE: The image is a combination of two images: “Hey let me tell you a secret of mine” by StockImages at and “Kiwi’s” at

Sarah Elbert is a PhD student in Social Psychology at the University of Groningen. Her research interests range from persuasion and communication processes to behavior change and the development of (health) interventions. For instance, she aims to understand the influence of factors that can stimulate persuasion and behavior change. Currently, she focuses on aspects that influence persuasion when a message is communicated via the auditory channel. This prompts questions like: ‘What is the influence of voice characteristics?’ or ‘How can background music enhance persuasion?’ The possible added value of auditory forms of persuasive health communication and how it may stimulate the adoption of a healthy behavior is currently tested in a field study. To this purpose, a smartphone application to stimulate fruit and vegetable consumption was developed in collaboration with the programmers of the psychology department. For more information, you can visit her website.


Selected Publications

Elbert, S.P. & Dijkstra, A. (in press). An experimental test of the relationship between voice intonation and persuasion in the domain of health. Psychology & Health. doi:10.1080/08870446.2014.903482

Elbert, S.P. & Dijkstra, A. (2012). De stem als bron van extra informatie: De invloed van intonatie als stemkenmerk op de effectiviteit van een auditieve gezondheidsboodschap. [The voice as an additional source of information: The influence of intonation as a voice characteristic on the effectiveness of an auditory health message]. In N. van de Ven, M. Baas, L. van Dillen, D. Lakens, A.M. Lokhorst, & M. Strick (Eds.), Jaarboek Sociale Psychologie 2011 (pp. 49-52). Groningen: ASPO pers

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