Loud and unclear: Intense real-life vocalizations during affective situations are perceptually ambiguous and contextually malleable

Doron Atias, Alexander Todorov, Shai Liraz, Arella Eidinger, Ilan Dror, Yaacov Maymon, Hillel Aviezer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


A basic premise of emotion theories is that experienced feelings (whether specific emotions or broad valence) are expressed via vocalizations in a veridical and clear manner. By contrast, functional- contextual frameworks, rooted in animal communication research, view vocalizations as contextually flexible tools for social influence, not as expressions of emotion. Testing these theories has proved difficult because past research relied heavily on posed sounds which may lack ecological validity. Here, we test these theories by examining the perception of human affective vocalizations evoked during highly intense, real-life emotional situations. In Experiment 1a, we show that highly intense vocalizations of opposite valence (e.g., joyous reunions, fearful encounters) are perceptually confusable and their ambiguity increases with higher intensity. In Experiment 1b, we use authentic lottery winning reactions and show that increased hedonic intensity leads to lower, not higher valence. In Experiment 2, we demonstrate that visual context operates as a powerful mechanism for disambiguating real-life vocalizations, shifting perceived valence categorically. These results suggest affective vocalizations may be inherently ambiguous, demonstrate the role of intensity in driving affective ambiguity, and suggest a critical role for context in vocalization perception. Together, these findings challenge both basic emotion and dimensional theories of emotion expression and are better in line with a functional- contextual account which is externalist and by definition, context dependent.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1842-1848
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 American Psychological Association.


  • Context effects
  • Emotional vocalizations
  • Intense emotions
  • Real-life
  • Valence perception


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