Is it happiness or fear? Why some screams may confuse us

Is it happiness or fear? Why some screams may confuse us

Written by Robby Berman on April 6, 2021 — Fact checked by Alexandra Sanfins, Ph.D.
Share on PinterestNew research explains why we may easily mistake screams of happiness for screams of fear.
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  • While most animals only scream when attacked, humans express a variety of emotions through screams.
  • Researchers have found that variations in timbre and frequency allow screams to express anger, frustration, pain, surprise, fear, and happiness.
  • A study from Emory University finds that people are good at identifying the meaning of most screams.
  • However, individuals often mistake screams of happiness for screams of fear when they hear them without any additional context.

There are few sounds more attention-grabbing than a scream. Humans scream for several reasons, and we are surprisingly good at understanding what a scream means.

A new study from researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, explores this capability and finds there is one significant exception, however.

People will likely mistake a person’s scream of happiness for a scream of fear.

The senior author of the study, which appears in the journal PeerJ, is Prof. Harold Gouzoules, Professor of Psychology at Emory University.

The basic reason for screaming

Most animals who scream only do so when being attacked. However, nonhuman primates also use screams to call for help when threatened, said Prof. Gouzoules: “Their kin and friends will come to help, even if some distance away, when they can recognize the vocalizer.”

Even so, Prof. Gouzoules suggests that our mistaking happiness in a scream for fear may have something to do with the original reason for screaming.

“The first animal screams were probably in response to an attack by a predator. In some cases, a sudden, loud, and high-pitched sound might startle a predator and allow the prey to escape. It’s an essential, core response. So mistaking a happy scream for a fearful one could be an ancestral carryover bias. If it is a close call, you are going to err on the side of fear,” he notes.

Given this, Prof. Gouzoules wonders if there is an evolutionary advantage in how human children scream so often in play.

“Nobody has really studied why young children tend to scream frequently,” he said, “even when they are happily playing, but every parent knows that they do. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.”

Prof. Gouzoules continued: “It’s just speculative, but it may be that when children scream with excitement as they play, it serves the evolutionary role of familiarizing a parent to the unique sound of their screams.

“The more you hear your child scream in a safe, happy context, the better able you are to identify a scream as belonging to your child, so you will know to respond when you hear it,” he adds.

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