By Emily Reynolds
Facial expressions can be difficult to read – and not just when someone is experiencing a slight emotion or feeling ambivalent. Research has shown that when we experience someone in a particularly acute emotional state, such as intense joy or pain, we have a hard time determining exactly how they’re feeling.
A new study examines a similar phenomenon, this time focusing on sounds like laughing, crying, screaming, and moaning. Registered mail Scientific reports, Natalie Holz and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics found that our ability to recognize emotions increases with more intense vocalizations – but only to a certain extent. When these sounds reach their maximum intensity, we find it surprisingly difficult to classify them.
The participants were divided into three groups and given different tasks; each involved listening to non-verbal sounds representing different emotions and intensities. The first group focused on the categorization of emotions and assigned the sounds to one of seven possible affective states: anger, fear, pain, achievement, positive surprise, sexual pleasure, or none of the above. Next, the participants stated how intense they felt the emotion and how authentic.
The second group participated in an emotion rating Task that indicates how clearly you could perceive a certain emotion in the sounds. And the third group rated the sounds according to their value (how positive or negative the sound was) and arousal (how calm or intense it was). This group also stated how authentic they felt the individual noises to be.
In the emotion categorization task, the participants were able to largely correctly classify different emotions. The participants were also able to successfully determine how intense an emotion was.
However, there appeared to be an intensity “sweet spot” where the participants were most accurate in their classifications. Participants were able to judge emotions more accurately when they were of medium or high intensity versus low intensity – but after that, when the vocalizations reached “maximum intensity,” the accuracy decreased again.
Participants also showed some confusion when it came to categorizing noise as negative or positive. Although they heard the same number of sounds of each valence, participants often mistakenly categorized positive expressions as negative, especially at high intensities.
Overall, the results show that while participants were able to correctly identify intensity and arousal across the sounds, they were more difficult to pinpoint the exact type and emotion expressed as the intensity peaked. This could be the case due to the “relevance” of certain utterances. If someone expresses something with the greatest intensity, says first author Holz, “the most important task could be to recognize major events and assess their relevance. A finer assessment of the affective meaning can be secondary. “
In other words, extremely emotionally intense sounds have something happens that requires our attention: what it is exactly in this moment may be less important and may come later.
Previous studies have identified clear, objective markers in intense facial expressions that should theoretically enable us to determine whether they indicate positive or negative valence. However, at the moment we often don’t. Further research could examine the clues that exist in intense emotional sounds and give an idea of why – and how – we mix up their meanings.
– The paradoxical role of emotional intensity in the perception of vocal affects
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles