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The paradoxical role of emotional intensity in the perception of vocal affect

Nonverbal emotion communication defies intuition (Image: MPI for Empirical Aesthetics)

Vocalizations including laughter, cries, moans, or screams constitute a potent source of information about the affective states of others. It is typically conjectured that the higher the intensity of the expressed emotion, the better the classification of affective information. However, attempts to map the relation between affective intensity and inferred meaning are controversial. Based on a newly developed stimulus database of carefully validated non-speech expressions ranging across the entire intensity spectrum from low to peak, we show that the intuition is false. Based on three experiments (Nā€‰=ā€‰90), we demonstrate that intensity in fact has a paradoxical role. Participants were asked to rate and classify the authenticity, intensity and emotion, as well as valence and arousal of the wide range of vocalizations. Listeners are clearly able to infer expressed intensity and arousal; in contrast, and surprisingly, emotion category and valence have a perceptual sweet spot: moderate and strong emotions are clearly categorized, but peak emotions are maximally ambiguous. This finding, which converges with related observations from visual experiments, raises interesting theoretical challenges for the emotion communication literature.


Holz, N., Larrouy-Maestri, P. & Poeppel, D. The paradoxical role of emotional intensity in the perception of vocal affect. Sci Rep 11, 9663 (2021).
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