Cultures, Communities and Society – PhD Profile

Stirling academics are passionate about studying and researching subjects in their wider context – including how we communicate with and understand others. Dominance and prestige are two of the ways that we identify people with a high social status. Human beings pick up on these subconscious cues by the way people look, the way they talk and their presence around others. But how does this judgement affect the way we behave towards them? This is a question that Dr Viktoria Mileva set out to answer during her PhD studies at Stirling. 

Viktoria Mileva

Imagine an interview situation. You are sat across from an employer who you feel intimidated by, and perceive to be more dominant than you. How does this make you feel and, importantly, how does it make you act? That’s what my fellow PhD student, Juan David Leongómez, and I were keen to find out. A lot of research has been done on the behaviours of more dominant, or more prestigious people, but there are few studies on the effect they can have on the people they interact with.

Dr Viktoria Mileva, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

infographic: Dr Mileva's work has attracted

Dr Mileva's work has attracted

more than 72,000 readers on The Conversation's global research platform

The influence of social status

Working with academic supervisors in Psychology, Dr Mileva and Dr Leongómez conducted ‘simulated’ job interviews with a group of volunteers and discovered that individuals’ alter their vocal characteristics – particularly pitch – in response to people of different social status.

'A deep, masculine voice sounds dominant, especially in men, while the opposite is true of a higher pitched voice,' Viktoria continued. 'If someone perceives their interviewer to be more dominant or more prestigious, they typically raise their pitch. This may be a signal of submission, to show the listener that you are not a threat, and to avoid possible confrontations.' The research also found that participants who think they are dominant – and use negative methods like manipulation, coercion, and intimidation to acquire social status – are less likely to vary their pitch, and will speak in a lower tone when talking to someone of a high social status. Similarly, individuals who rate themselves high in prestige and are respected by their peers do not change how loud they are speaking, regardless of whom they are speaking to.

'Signals and perceptions of social status have an effect on virtually every human interaction, ranging from morphological characteristics – such as face shape – to body posture, specific language use, facial expressions and voices,' Mileva added. 'Understanding what these signals are, and their effects, will help us comprehend an essential part of human behaviour.'

International collaboration

Prior to this study, but also during her PhD year, Viktoria engaged in a collaborative research project with Alex Jones (PhD, Bangor University) and Richard Russell (Associate Professor, Gettysburg College) to discover how wearing make-up can affect the way women are perceived by others. The study – the first of its kind in the world – found that women who wear make-up are seen by men as being more prestigious and well-respected, while women see them as more dominant and threatening. The research concluded that make-up changes the perception of your social status depending upon who is making the judgement.

Facial recognition 

Now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University, Dr Mileva is focusing her efforts on acquiring information about the way humans learn to recognise faces. Once complete, this study will allow computer scientists to train complex computer systems to detect and recognise people automatically.