02/20/2014 04:59 EST

Best Voices Belong To Those Who Sound Just Like Us

FILE - In this undated file photo, actress Marilyn Monroe is pictured mimicking Betty Grable's famous World War II pin-up pose. (AP Photo, File)

If you've ever wondered why your friends and neighbours sound like you, a new study on vocal attractiveness -- which also finds we prefer the "breathier" tones of Marilyn Monroe to "creakier" voices -- may have the answer.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia found people tend to gravitate towards those with voices similar to their own, as it sends a soothing message of "community and social belongingness." Published in the journal PLOS ONE, this new evidence adds to previous studies suggesting people prefer the voices of small women and large men.

"The voice is an amazingly flexible tool that we use to construct our identity," says lead author Molly Babel, a professor in the UBC Department of Linguistics. "Very few things in our voices are immutable, so we felt that our preferences had to be about more than a person's shape and size."

The study notes gender differences are key to vocal attractiveness in addition to regional dialect preference. For women, people are strongly attracted to "breathier" voices, such as those of screen legend Marilyn Monroe or health and fitness icon Denise Austin. This is compared to "creakier" voices, such as those of the Kardashian clan. Breathiness is the result of thinner, "younger" vocal cords, with attraction to breathy voices stemming from cultural fixation with youth and vitality, the researchers say, noting a "creaky" voice may indicate a health issue, such as a cold or a long history of smoking.

For men, people tend to prefer those who speak "with a shorter average word length." "Larger" male voices are also preferred, which reinforces previous research.

Babel and her University of California, Santa Cruz colleagues surveyed college-age people living in California for this study. Participants were asked to rate the vocal attractiveness of men and women living west of the Mississippi River. The researchers found that participants were attracted to different acoustic signals from men and women and strongly preferred voices similar to ones they hear in their own communities.

But what about the vocal attractiveness of foreign dialects, such as the Irish brogue or a French accent? Babel has a theory about that as well.

"Once you are outside of a certain range of familiarity, novel and exotic sounding voices might become more attractive," she says. "We also have to keep in mind that we find some accents more preferable than others because of social stereotypes that are associated with them."

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