The link between auditory salience and emotion intensity

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


To ensure that listeners pay attention and do not habituate, emotionally intense vocalizations may be under evolutionary pressure to exploit processing biases in the auditory system by maximising their bottom-up salience. This “salience code” hypothesis was tested using 128 human nonverbal vocalizations representing eight emotions: amusement, anger, disgust, effort, fear, pain, pleasure, and sadness. As expected, within each emotion category salience ratings derived from pairwise comparisons strongly correlated with perceived emotion intensity. For example, while laughs as a class were less salient than screams of fear, salience scores almost perfectly explained the perceived intensity of both amusement and fear considered separately. Validating self-rated salience evaluations, high- vs. low-salience sounds caused 25% more recall errors in a short-term memory task, whereas emotion intensity had no independent effect on recall errors. Furthermore, the acoustic characteristics of salient vocalizations were similar to those previously described for non-emotional sounds (greater duration and intensity, high pitch, bright timbre, rapid modulations, and variable spectral characteristics), confirming that vocalizations were not salient merely because of their emotional content. The acoustic code in nonverbal communication is thus aligned with sensory biases, offering a general explanation for some non-arbitrary properties of human and animal high-arousal vocalizations.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Philosophy
Original languageEnglish
JournalCognition and Emotion
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2020 Mar 3
Publication categoryResearch