Study Shows People Might Find it Hard to Distinguish Between Screams of Fear and Joy

It’s a natural instinct to turn around when you hear a scream behind you. However, even before you turn your head, you usually have subconsciously decoded the message you think the scream is sending. However, a new study reveals that there’s a high likelihood that your guess on what the scream is about is wrong.

Six types of emotions explained by screaming

Emory University researchers explain that screams related to positive emotion can often be mistaken for screams of fear. This can be attributed to both types of screams having close acoustic features.

Screaming is one of the most common vocal nonverbal methods of human communication. It can display one in a range of emotions from happiness, pain, surprise, anger, frustration, and fear. According to the study, it’s usually easy to distinguish between these emotions, but the difference between a jubilant scream and a scream in fear is next to indistinguishable.

Screams of joy, in particular, are quite hard to establish just by listening. According to the study, you will most likely need additional context to classify a scream as a happy one. Screams, unlike speech, do not have consistent or distinctive acoustic parameters.

In the study, 182 subjects were asked to listen to 30 screams from movie scenes through headphones. They were then required to classify what in six emotions the scream represented. The options were anger, pain, fear, frustration, happiness, and surprise.

The results revealed that the participants were largely able to classify most of the emotions related to the screams even without visual or verbal context. However, the results also revealed that the participants also mistook the screams related to positive emotions related to fear.

Mysterious screams

Study authors began by signaling animal screams, to which they concluded that they are mostly in response to a predatory attack. They then shifted their focus to human screams using Hollywood movies, YouTube videos, and TV shows to get acted and authentic screams.

The study also recognized the mystery behind some screams. The reasons behind some screams, like the squeals sometimes made by playing children, remain unexplained.

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