The universal language of emotion

An international study comparing expressions led by Olin researcher.


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Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis identified vocal expressions uttered by individuals in the United States, Australia, India, Kenya, and Singapore, and found that individuals were better at judging emotions from individual kinsmen.

They discovered that the Aussies and Indians could read each other pretty well despite cultural barriers.

Hillary Anger Elfenbein, the John K. Wallace, Jr. and Ellen A. Wallace Distinguished Professor and professor of Organizational Behavior at Olin Business School, said, “The way they interpreted emotional expressions, they tended to be the same. Their interpretations were almost universal, which is an important finding that fits with existing work from my own team and others that shows a lot of emotion is universal.”

When one native varies the pitch of (the voice) on phrases, a person from the other country knows how to interpret the utterer’s emotions via non-verbal language or expressions: anger, fear, happiness, pride, relief, sadness, serenity, and shame. No matter the emotion, the words spoken were constant.

Scientists discovered that the participants were better at judging emotions from their own countries. During the study, scientists particularly identified the intent they believed was behind it.

In this detailed analysis of Australian-Indian, volunteers were played audio clips of professional actors from each of the countries making the two aforementioned statements in English.

While English was the primary language of the Australians, the Indian group reported primary tongues Nepali, Assamese, Hindi, and Tibetan but were fluent in English. The actors were instructed to enact scenes associated with anger, fear, happiness, pride, relief, sadness, serenity, and shame.

The scenarios were judged across multiple computational platforms, including Bayesian analyses and other ratings previously used by Elfenbein in EI research. Different from previous cross-cultural research on emotion reception, the participants didn’t judge the emotion categories but instead offered ratings across many dimensions that appraised such things as novelty, intrinsic pleasantness, goal conduciveness, urgency, and power. Of 96 comparisons, 17 (18 percent) supported a difference between listener cultures, and 61 (64 percent) supported no difference.

“It’s always a surprise when you get nearly no cultural differences,” Elfenbein said. “You expect every culture to have its own style. Especially something like this, how to interpret when we hear somebody’s voice. I didn’t quite expect it to be so similar.”

The study is published online in the Royal Society Open Sciences.


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