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?

Read the article at NPR →