What is it about?

People can accurately interpret the emotions expressed by animal calls, but how--which acoustic features do we key into? In this study, humans heard pitch-modified versions of calls from diverse species, including monkeys, cats, seals, ravens, frogs, and crickets. Listeners attributed more intense emotions to higher-pitched calls, across all those animals, independent of experience. Relying on vocal pitch probably helps people accurately perceive emotions in mammals, but might mislead our perception of evolutionarily distant animals.

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Why is it important?

We interact with animals all the time, so it's important to know what biases guide our interpretations of animal behavior. This study suggests that we tend to use a simple rule of thumb - "higher pitched calls mean a more intense emotion" - to guide our perceptions of animals. It would be more accurate to apply this rule more to animals that are closely related to us, like mammals, but our results suggested that we don't alter this rule based on evolutionary distance. Instead we perceive emotion from distantly related animals as though they were mammals--a tendency that could have implications for our treatment of other species.


As a scientist interested in animal behavior, I never stop thinking about what is going on in animals' minds. It was really fascinating to see how other people perceive animal emotions and to think more about the role of human biases in our animal interactions. As an early-career professor, this was my first paper coauthored with undergraduate students, and it was such a joy to work with them and see them accomplish this massive achievement.

Jay Schwartz
Western Oregon University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Pitch affects human (Homo sapiens) perception of emotional arousal from diverse animal calls., Journal of Comparative Psychology, October 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/com0000366.
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