Most people cannot tell the difference between screaming for joy and fear because they sound the same

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Hearing a scream can be quite scary, especially if you don’t know why it was made.

Psychologists at Emory University asked subjects to listen to Hollywood movie clips and determine the emotion behind 30 different cinematic catchphrases.

They found that people are actually quite good at discerning the causes of different types of screams – such as anger, pain, or surprise – but are bad at determining whether someone is a scream of joy or fear.

This may be because the acoustic elements used to convey fear are also present in ‘excited happy cries’.

“People even pay good money to ride roller coasters, where their screams undoubtedly reflect a mix of those two emotions,” the researchers said.

Psychologists at Emory University found that subjects could identify screams as being of anger, frustration, pain, or surprise - but they had difficulty distinguishing a scream of joy from a scream of fear

Psychologists at Emory University found that subjects could identify screams as being of anger, frustration, pain, or surprise – but they had difficulty distinguishing a scream of joy from a scream of fear

The team asked 182 participants to label 30 Hollywood screams as one of the six emotions.

For the most part, the subjects were able to correctly identify cries of anger, frustration, pain, surprise, and fear.

But shouts of happiness were often confused with feelings of fear.

“The acoustic features that seem to convey fear are also present in excited, happy cries,” explains Harold Gouzoules, an animal behaviorist and lead author in a new study published in PeerJ.

Cries of fear and happiness share certain acoustic similarities, animal behaviorist Harold Gouzoules said.  'People even pay good money to ride roller coasters, where their screams no doubt reflect a mix of those two emotions'

Cries of fear and happiness share certain acoustic similarities, animal behaviorist Harold Gouzoules said.  'People even pay good money to ride roller coasters, where their screams no doubt reflect a mix of those two emotions'

Cries of fear and happiness share certain acoustic similarities, animal behaviorist Harold Gouzoules said. ‘People even pay good money to ride roller coasters, where their screams no doubt reflect a mix of those two emotions’

Yelling doesn’t just break social norms, it “requires a lot of vocal power and causes the vocal folds to vibrate in a chaotic, inconsistent way.”

“People even pay good money to ride roller coasters, where their screams undoubtedly reflect a mix of those two emotions.”

That confusion may have an evolutionary advantage, he added, given that conveying danger is arguably the most important form of communication.

“The first animal screams were probably in response to an attack by a predator,” Gouzoules said.

In some cases, a sudden, loud high-pitched noise can startle a predator and allow the prey to escape. It’s an essential nuclear reaction. ‘

To confuse a cry of joy with a fearful one, “could be an ancestral transference bias,” he said, adding, “When it gets close, you will err on the side of fear.”

Gouzoules became one of the first researchers in human screams about a decade ago and is interested in how they relate to and differ from animal vocalizations.

“Animal screams almost always occur in the context of a fight or in response to a predator,” he said in 2019.

“Human screams happen in a much wider range of contexts, which makes them much more interesting.”

The researchers examined 30 cinematic screams, recording average loudness, duration, and other factors. “Animals really just scream in combat or respond to a predator,” Gouzoules said. ‘Human screams happen in a much wider range of contexts, making them much more interesting’

Yelling doesn’t just break social norms, it “requires a lot of vocal power and causes the vocal folds to vibrate in a chaotic, inconsistent way.”

Gouzoules’ previous research has shown that humans can distinguish screams from other types of human vocalizations, but most listeners cannot distinguish an acted scream from a naturally occurring one.

His lab has collected screams from various TV shows, YouTube clips and movies, including ‘scream queen’ Jaime Lee Curtis.

It also has a library of ‘authentic’ catchphrases, including the joyful screeching of a little girl when she opens a Christmas present and a woman screaming in response to the aftershocks of a meteor exploding over Russia.