How we express positive emotions through our voice, but without words

People can produce a variety of sounds with their voice when they experience emotions like amusement, pleasure, surprise, or relief, without using words.

VU social psychologist Roza Kamiloglu investigated which positive emotions people convey through these sounds and whether listeners genuinely understand them. Her research was recently featured in interviews by Dutch news media Het Parool and New Scientist. Here is a brief overview of her work in the interviews:

Negative vs. Positive Emotions

People often recognize negative emotions from others’ expressions instantly. There has been extensive research in the past on non-verbal sounds linked to negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, or fear. However, very little was known about positive vocal expressions without words. As a result, positive vocalizations have been a vastly understudied area, according to Kamiloglu. She thus investigated whether people actually produce distinct vocal expressions linked to a wide range of positive emotions, and whether listeners can recognize these emotions.

11 positive emotions

Through a call on social media and other platforms, Kamiloglu recruited people to record their voices in the lab. She collected vocal expressions of 22 different positive emotions ranging from being moved to feeling grateful, from being interested to excited, and from hopeful to triumphant. She found that out of the 22 emotional vocalizations, 11 have distinct acoustic structures using machine learning methods. Furthermore, listeners recognize these emotions: admiration, amusement, determination, excitement, inspiration, interest, lust, relief, schadenfreude (taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune), sensory pleasure, and surprise. "Listeners do understand many of the intended emotions", Kamiloglu concluded.

To learn more about Roza Kamiloglu’s research, you can read the full articles in Het Parool and New Scientist.