Emotion research: Misunderstandings on the emotional scale

Whether shouting, whispering or itching: the voice provides information as to whether a person is sad or overjoyed. But do we understand emotions better when th

Emotion research: Misunderstandings on the emotional scale

Whether shouting, whispering or itching: the voice provides information as to whether a person is sad or overjoyed. But do we understand emotions better when they are expressed more intensively? Natalie Holz from the Department of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt in cooperation with New York University and the Max Planck NYU Center for Language, Music, and Emotion investigated this question. In emotion research, it has long been assumed that with increasing emotional intensity, feelings become clearer and clearer. "We wanted to know if this was actually the case," says 28-year-old doctoral student Holz.

The research team first recorded non-verbal expressions of emotion in a recording studio in Boston and packed them into a freely accessible database. "We have created a kind of emotional scale by inviting vocal students to express six different positive and negative feelings in four different intensities – from very mild to extremely strong."

It was about fear, anger, pain, sexual pleasure, positive surprise and triumph, explains Holz, only non-linguistic sounds such as screams, groans, groans, laughter or itchings were allowed. Then, 90 subjects rated the recordings according to which emotion each utterance expresses.

Attention filters and alarm signal work

"We asked how positive or negative the expressed is and how the subjects perceive the state of excitement of the person from whom the utterance originates.“ In addition, the subjects were to assess how strongly they assessed the emotional intensity and how authentically they found the emotional expression.

The scientists discovered a paradox: "Probably the most surprising result is that the most intense feelings are the most misunderstood and the least clearly attributable," says Holz. The respondents were no longer able to distinguish which feeling a sound expressed in the intensely expressed emotions.

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However, the subjects succeeded well in this differentiation at medium to high intensity. As soon as a certain, very extreme degree of intensity is reached, it is difficult for people to determine the type of feeling, as well as whether the vocalization expresses a positive emotion or a negative one, reports neuroscientist Holz, who published the results with her colleagues in the middle of the year in the journal Scientific Reports and thus sees common theories of emotion challenged.

Updated Date: 21 November 2021, 00:01

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