Our Voice’s Emotions

Humintell tends to focus on nonverbal behavior and facial expressions, but our voices also convey a lot of subtle information.

This should not be a surprise to many of you who intuitively see different emotions and attitudes in pre-vocal utterances such as sighs, grunts, or yells.

In a 2015 study, a team of researchers sought to explore these sorts of pre-lingual vocalizations as expressions of raw emotions, perhaps even dating back to before humans developed language. Specifically, they wanted to know whether these sounds conveyed recognizable universal emotions.

Their incredibly wide-ranging study consisted of two main investigations. First, they took a series of 16 vocalizations and attempted to determine whether these would be matched to the same emotions by diverse participants from ten globalized and industrialized cultures. In addition to these globalized cultures, which included Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations, the researchers also sought to replicate their findings in a remote village in Bhutan.

The emotions under consideration included all of the universal basic emotions but with slight variations, such as dividing happiness into desire, awe, amusement, and contentment. After specifying these emotions, the researchers tied them to related vocalizations. For example, laughter was seen as representing amusement and screaming as signifying fear.

With this framework established, the first study involved asking online participants to match instances of these vocalizations with brief, one-sentence stories intended to express different emotions. They were highly accurate in identifying the intended emotion, doing so about 80 percent of the time. Still, some vocalizations were systematically misidentified by given cultures, such as surprise in India.

While these results certainly suggest a broad consensus matching universal emotions with non-linguistic verbalizations, the study authors pointed out that each of the participants were wealthy, well-educated, and generally assimilated into globalized norms, such as through access to the internet and mass media. Thus, the study may simply be measuring norms promoted via a globalized and interconnected world.

In order to correct for this possible error, the second study came into play. This involved the researchers asking similar questions to non-globalized villagers from Bhutan. These new participants engaged in a face to face context as they lacked internet and electricity. Importantly, they comprised an autonomous community with almost no contact from outsiders, including tourists.

They were asked to perform similar tasks as in the first study, identifying vocalizations with the same, translated stories. While the villagers were generally less accurate, they correctly identified nine of the vocalizations, including those intended to evoke amusement, disgust, fear, sadness, and surprise, i.e. many of the basic emotions.

Thus, the researchers were able to find strong evidence that non-linguistic vocalizations do convey universal emotions, and that globalized cultures tended to identify similar emotional meanings.

This makes a great deal of sense given Dr. David Matsumoto’s advice in a previous blog, where he contended that words are often less important than tone and expression in understanding cross cultural emotions. An understanding of the sounds people make is crucial to help read them, within our culture and outside of it, and Humintell is proud to offer courses in both contexts.

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