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  • What’s in a grunt – or a sigh, or a sob? Depends on where you hear it

    NPR - 05/30/2014

    Hear a laugh, you know someone’s happy. Hear a sob, you know someone is sad. Or are they? It’s been thought that no matter where you live in the world, people express emotions using the same repertoire of sounds. But NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, reports on new research on how emotions are expressed and understood around the globe.

    For a long time, scientists have assumed there is a universal grammar when it comes to emotional sound. Languages differ, cultures differ, but emotional sounds carry the same meaning everywhere you go. There’s good evidence for this theory. Studies have shown that if you ask people to say whether this sound comes from a person who’s happy or sad.

    Lisa Barrett, a psychologist at Northeastern University, told me these experiments led to this widely held conclusion.

    “The assumption is that you can listen to someone’s voice and you can know exactly how they’re feeling and that this is a universal ability.”

    Barrett decided to test the assumption in a new way. The past experiments I described gave people categories to choose from just like I did. I told you one sound was happy or sad, the other sound was satisfied or disgusted. You just picked one of two choices.

    In some new research, Barrett asked a deceptively simple question – what happens if you don’t give people multiple choices? What if you just play the sounds and ask them to tell you what they hear?

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