Social Cues and Workout Blues – An Interview with Christopher Bergland

Michelle Obama once famously said, ‘When they go low, we go high’. Obviously, that was in reference to morals in political campaigns – but how relevant is the actual pitch of our voice when it comes to social hierarchy? Recent studies have found that both men and women tend to raise the pitch of their voice when speaking to someone they regard as of a higher social status, and, interestingly enough, more often than not the case whereby tennis players who grunted in a lower pitch tended to come out on top against opponents who grunted in a higher pitch.

Christopher Bergland, record-breaking endurance athlete.

I spoke to Christopher Bergland, a world-class, record-breaking endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist, to find out what he made of the new studies which have come out about these studies involving sports and social hierarchy. He holds the Guinness World Record for running 153.76 miles in 24 hours on a treadmill (I’m tired just thinking about the prospect of that…) and is a three-time champion of the Triple Ironman. The Triple Ironman is a 7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, and a 78.6-mile run done consecutively. He completed the Triple Ironman in a record-breaking time of 38 hours and 46 minutes. He runs a blog called ‘The Athlete’s Way’, which combines new research of health and sport-related physiology and psychology and informs on what this research may tell us about our athletic performance and general psychological wellbeing.


In your article, ‘Wimbledon Grunts May Separate Winners and Losers’,  you mentioned a vocal-pitch study, ‘Perceived Differences in Social Status Between Speaker and Listener Affect the Speaker’s Vocal Charactersitics’, which found that men and women both tend toraise the pitch of their voice when speaking to someone of perceived higher status. Given gender norms across the population, with men typically having deeper voices than women as a whole, could this finding reflect general internalized philandry / sexism, or perhaps maybe a link to evolutionary theories ie. Hunter-gatherer male seen as superior due to provision of protection and physical strength?

Yes, from an evolutionary perspective, one could speculate that deeper toned voices (and grunts) are equated with dominance, protection and could reflect sterotypes based on concepts of the “alpha male”. Interestingly, another study reported that after male and female university students were coached to speak in a lower pitch while reading a script, both genders self-reported feeling more powerful and in control. Regardless of sex, when either men or women who spoke in a lower-pitched voice they were also perceived as more powerful by both genders.
From an evolutionary pscyhophysiology perspective, I have a hypothesis that one reason higher pitched voices might be equated with subordination or fear is related to the role that our vagus nerve plays on controlling the voice box (larynx) and throat (pharynx). For example, whenever someone is nervous or has stage fright about public speaking, the vagus nerve spasms as part of a fight-flight-freeze response, which can make someone’s voice squeaky and sound insecure. Conversely, feeling confident and in control would be marked by a calmer nervous system which would translate into deeper diaphragmatic breathing and relaxed vocal cords which can make your voice have a lower tone. So, ultimately, lower pitch voice may have more to do with projecting an aura of not feeling subordinate or scared, which transcends gender stereotypes.

Do you think there is an element of truth in the idea that people are generally afraid of people of perceived higher social status, and so the raising of their pitch is a submissive gesture?

Yes, I think that many people feel intimidated by people they perceive as having higher status and may raise their voices as a submissive gesture. Personally, I try to avoid doing this and find that having empirical evidence and clinical research on this topic is useful as a reminder to stay cognizant of this aspect of our human nature and to consciously avoid falling into that trap by not raising the pitch of my voice in the presence of so-called social “elites”.
One of my favorite quotations to cope with any type of fear or insecurity is from the legendary baseball coach and civil rights activist Branch Rickey who would calm players down by saying, “Let’s not get panicky.” As part of maintaining grace under pressure I will recite this phrase while doing some diaphragmatic breathing whenever I feel intimidated by a person or upcoming challenge. I’ll also use the placebo effect of talking in a slightly deeper voice to trick my nervous system (and onlookers) into thinking that I’m not afraid. As Cora Harris once said, “the bravest thing you can do when you are not brave is to profess courage and act accordingly.”
There is one caveat: Obviously, speaking in a ridiculously low pitch would make anyone a caricature of him/herself. As with most things, the trick to vocal pitch is to find a sweet spot that isn’t too high (like Minnie Mouse) but also doesn’t sound as if you’re doing cheesy John Wayne, “macho man” imitation.

Do you think that the findings of the study, ‘Tennis Grunts Communicate Acoustic Cues to Sex and Contest Outcome’, would be replicated in other competitive sports, or is tennis one of few sports where this is applicable?

That’s a great question. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any specific studies on this topic. That said, my gut instinct is that, yes, these findings would translate to other sports.

Do these studies provide a negative message for high-pitched, feminine managers/people of authority? There seems to an overwhelming trend which suggests we, at some level, prefer and take more seriously those with deeper pitches…

Again, I think the most valuable angle to look at voice pitch is through the lens of psychophysiology with the goal of calming the “fight-or-flight” stress response that is equated with high-pitched voices. On the flip side, engaging the parasympathetic “relaxation response” would facilitate maintaining an evenness of temperament that would most likely be marked by a voice that seems stalwart, steady, and slightly lower pitched.

Do you believe social hierarchy has adapted and modernized as a result of modern culture, or is it still relatively simplistic in evolutionary terms? Even so, do you still believe there is such a thing as social hierarchy in today’s culture? 

Yes, I definitely think there is a social hierarchy, especially based on socioeconomic stratification and inequality. In terms of the social hierarchy evolving, I do think we are making progress. One reason I like to incorporate evolutionary psychobiology into a lot of my research and writing is that it shows how we are hardwired and can help to explain innate human behaviors and needs, such as the paramount importance of face-to-face close-knit human bonds and social connectedness. All toooften, modern day-to-day life is causing our hardwired neurobiological mechanism to short-circuit as we see the skyrocketing levels of perceived social isolation created by digital devices and social media platforms.

You’ve written a book called ‘The Athlete’s Way: Training Your Mind and Body to Experience the Joy of Exercise’. As a gym goer myself, I have to admit that the only enjoyment, most of the time, comes upon the conclusion of the workouts! What tips do you have which could change our approaches to recreational exercise, in order for us to enjoy it more? 

Undoubtedly, you are not alone in seeing the end of your workout as the only enjoyable part of the exercise process. The main goal of The Athlete’s Way is to educate people about all of the neurobiology behind why exercise has the power to improve your mind, body, and brain across a lifespan. One element of this is the ‘sweat and the biology of bliss’ component that we have evolved to feel good and boost brain power when we exert ourselves at a ‘tonic level’ by secreting endocannabinoids, dopamine, BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), endorphins, etc.
Tonic levels of perceived exertion are different for everybody and will change at different stages of life. So, my advice on how to enjoy exercise is to find something you enjoy doing and then to find your ‘tonic level’ which matches your skill level with the degree of challenge. This sweet spot between boredom and anxiety while working out will also help to create a ‘flow state’. That said, even though I love to sweat, sometimes the end of a grueling workout is an absolute sufferfest for me too. But, as you mention the eudaimonic reward of being able to say ‘I did it!’ keeps me pushing hard to through the end of a workout.

You are a three-time Triple Ironman champion and you hold a Guinness World Record for running 153.76 miles on a treadmill in 24 hours. First of all, congratulations! They are some impressive feats. It must be both physically and psychologically exhausting. How did you prepare for these events? Was it difficult to motivate yourself? 

Motivation was never a problem when it came to training for ultra-endurance sports. A big part of my drive was that I had a chip on my shoulder after being relentlessly bullied by a Dean I had in boarding school. He tried to convince me that I was a ‘sissy’ because I didn’t want to be on the football team. So, when I was seventeen, I started running and would push myself harder than anyone else in a race to prove that I had mettle and was ‘tougher than the rest’.
Over the years, my passion and need to continuously push my mind and body to the outer limits became like a psychedelic drug. I would go to such a magical place whenever I was running, biking or swimming long distances that I wanted to stay in this ‘Nirvana-esque’ state of being for as long as possible. This is why I would end up doing things like run for 24 hours non-stop…
Because of my fanaticism, I had to closely monitor my heart rate variability (HRV) to make sure that I wasn’t overtraining. Luckily, I had a terrific coach (Jonathan Cane) who kept close tabs on my HRV and would pull the reins in if I started to overdo it. This kept the homeostasis between my sympathetic (excitatory) and parasympathetic (inhibitory) nervous system in balance and also kept me injury free throughout my entire career.
 After I broke a World Record and my daughter was born, I realized that I had to get off the merry-go-round of constantly chasing the ‘holygrail’ or golden ring of trying to go even farther and faster as an athlete. I retired from competitive sports and decided to pour my energy into being a public health advocate and science-based wellness writer.

You’ve been actively involved with Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s fight against the childhood obesity epidemic. There are obviously many clear advantages to staying healthy, but are there any facts which aren’t common knowledge, which may cause people to reconsider their lifestyles? Also, could you tell us a little bit more about what Alliance for a Healthier Generation actually do, and what you role in it was/is? 

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation does terrific work, but I haven’t been involved with them for a couple of years. (I need to update all of my online bios!) Regarding lifestyle choices that can keepsomeone healthy across his or her lifespan, I continue to go back to the common sense held in our evolutionary roots. For example, in the 1960s, my mom was the personal secretary for Rene Dubos, who wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning book So Human an Animal. Dubos saw the potential of modern technology and civilization to short-circuit and looked at the lifestyle habits of indigenous cultures that had been untouched by the ‘future shock’ that began in the 20th century. The main takeaway for lower morbidity and longevity in certain tribes appeared to be summed in a four-pronged approach todaily life that inherently included: (1) Close-knit human bonds (2) Moderate caloric intake (3) Daily physical activity (4) Spiritual belief in something bigger than oneself.

Anders Ericsson proposed that anybody could be an expert at anything, given enough time and repeated practice. How much of that do you believe is true? Can anyone really do anything if they put their mind (and body) (and excessive amounts of time and money) into it? 

I don’t want to sound cynical or like a killjoy…but I do not believe that anybody can become an expert at anything. In my opinion, one of most annoying and misleading catchphrases in the triathlon community is “Anything is possible”. Of course, this mantra is false advertising. For example, I ran 153.76 miles on a treadmill, but I was in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) for 5 days afterwards and almost died of kidney failure. Yes, I ran six marathons in 24 hours, but there is NO WAY that I could have run seven marathons in that time-frame regardless of how hard I trained or pushed my body and mind. As an ultra-endurance athlete, I learned that anything is NOT possible.
I use the term “pragmatic optimism” when setting goals or pouring my heart into anything that seems like a daunting challenge or just slightly out of reach of what I think is possible. Along the lines of the Anders Ericsson hypothesis you mention, I do support the idea that people should never underestimate their potential.
Mindset is never fixed and everyone should push themselves to optimize their full human potential and not be afraid of failure. For example, I was a terrible student and got horrible grades in high school. At a certain point, my father (who was a brain surgeon and neuroscientist) tried to take the academic pressure off by saying, “You may not have book smarts, Chris. But you have athletic genius.” Of course, this made me want to prove him wrong and reinvent myself as a writer by publishing a book after I retired from sports. (Yes, having a chip on my shoulder has played a pivotal role in pushing myself to achieve lofty goals!) So, in some ways, I agree that hard work and practice, practice, practice can lead to phenomenal outcomes. But there are always going to be realistic limits to how much of a world-class expert someone can become. And the backlash of telling someone ‘anything is possible’ is that it can make someone feel like a failure or like a loser if he/she doesn’t become a ‘rock star’ in any given field.

Finally, what are you currently up to? What are your plans for the immediate future?

My daughter is about to turn 10. I’m loving this stage of parenthood and watching her become a young adult. As a public health advocate, I continue to write lots of science-based wellness blogs for Psychology Today. (In fact, two days ago I wrote a post “Silent Third Person Self-Talk Facilitates Emotion Regulation” which dovetails with the lower-pitch voice/grunt research). Additionally, I’m finishing a book proposal which was inspired by my nine-part Vagus Nerve Survival Guide series which was really well received by readers. The actionable advice in this book addresses the epidemics of anxiety, anger/aggression, and inflammation that are sweeping the United States (and much of the world) by offering dozens of ways to reduce fight-or-flight stress responses by engaging the vagus nerve. The working title of the book is GRACE UNDER PRESSURE. My literary agent, Giles Anderson, is going to pitch the proposal to publishers.

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