Uttering ‘oohs’, ‘aahs’ and ‘uh-ohs’ convey at least 24 different types of emotion – almost twice as many as previously thought, according to new research.
From elation to embarrassment the ‘vocal bursts’ – commonly heard at football matches and other sporting events – convey more about feelings than we suspect.
The terrace chant of “Ooh Aah Cantona” sung by Manchester United fans was actually trademarked by their French hero.
Now an interactive audio map of ‘oohs’, ‘aahs’ and ‘uh-ohs’ demonstrates in vivid sound and colour the science behind the age-old sounds of joy – and desperation.
It could even end up being used in the clinic on patients with dementia, autism and other emotional processing disorders – guiding medical professionals and researchers to home in on specific problems.
Senior author Professor Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at California University in Berkeley, said: “This study is the most extensive demonstration of our rich emotional vocal repertoire – involving brief signals of upwards of two dozen emotions as intriguing as awe, adoration, interest, sympathy and embarrassment.”
Previous studies set the number of recognisable emotions at around 13, reports the journal American Psychologist.
For millions of years, humans have used spontaneous sounds to express everything from delight (woohoo) to shame (oops) that can be understood – in seconds.
In the most thorough investigation of its kind to date Prof Keltner and colleagues examined listener responses to more than 2,000 of these wordless exclamations.
Lead author Alan Cowen, a PhD student in the lab, said: “Our findings show the voice is a much more powerful tool for expressing emotion than previously assumed.”
On the map one can slide a cursor across the emotional topography and hover over fear (scream), surprise (gasp), awe (woah), realisation (ohhh), interest (ah?) – and finally confusion (huh?).
Among other applications it can be used to help teach voice-controlled digital assistants and other robotic devices to better recognize human emotions based on the sounds we make.
Mr Cowen said: “It lays out the different vocal emotions someone with a disorder might have difficulty understanding.
“For example, you might want to sample the sounds to see if the patient is recognising nuanced differences between, say, awe and confusion.”
Humans are keenly attuned to non-verbal signals – such as the bonding “coos” between parents and infants.
The map picks up on the subtle differences between surprise and alarm – or an amused versus an embarrassed laugh.
For example, by placing the cursor in the embarrassment region you might find a sound recognised as a mix of amusement, unease and positive surprise.
Prof Keltner said: “A tour through amusement reveals the rich vocabulary of laughter and a spin through the sounds of adoration, sympathy, ecstasy and desire may tell you more about romantic life than you might expect.”
His team got 56 male and female professional actors and non-actors from the US, India, Kenya and Singapore to respond to emotionally evocative scenarios.
More than 1,000 adults were then recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online marketplace to listen to their vocal bursts.
They then evaluated them based on the emotions and meaning they conveyed and whether the tone was positive or negative – among several other characteristics.
A statistical analysis found the sounds fitted into at least two dozen distinct categories.
They included amusement, anger, awe, confusion, contempt, contentment, desire, disappointment, disgust, distress, ecstasy, elation, embarrassment, fear, interest, pain, realizsation, relief, sadness, surprise, sympathy and triumph.
In a second experiment the researchers also presented real-world contexts for the vocal bursts.
They did this by sampling YouTube video clips that would evoke the 24 emotions established in the first – such as babies falling, puppies being hugged and spellbinding magic tricks.
This time, 88 adults of all ages judged the sounds. Again, the researchers were able to categorise their responses into 24 shades of emotion.
The full set of data were then organized into a semantic space onto an interactive map.
Mr Cowen said: “These results show emotional expressions colour our social interactions with spirited declarations of our inner feelings that are difficult to fake, and that our friends, co-workers, and loved ones rely on to decipher our true commitments.”
To visit the online map and hear the sounds, go to https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/vocs/map.html# and move the cursor across the map
By Mark Waghorn