I scream, you scream, we all scream for a variety of reasons. Variations in tone and frequency allow humans to express anger, frustration, pain, fear and happiness through the ultimate example of exuberance — the scream.
Research from Emory University indicates that most people are fairly good at identifying the reason behind most screams. But screams of joy without context are frequently misidentified as screams of fear.
Some of this, researchers point out, is based in evolution. After all, screams for help — as a means to alert others of danger, and to solicit help — are present across species.
Consequently, mistaking a joyful scream for a fearful cry may be an instance of “ancestral carryover bias,” which dictates most people will err on the side of caution, and assume someone is screaming because they are afraid.
Researchers collected recorded screams from television, YouTube videos and movies. Clips ranged from horror movie actors to unscripted, real-time screams. After parsing through the clips to identify the timbre and pitches associated with different feelings expressed via scream, researchers selected 30 recordings and played them for study participants, asking them to name the emotion conveyed by the scream.
Ultimately, although they guessed overall contexts for screams correctly, participants tended to judge screams of “excited happiness” as screams of fear.
Of course, there are areas of life where joy and fear are inextricable — like a rollercoaster, or a haunted house.
So, next time you’re home and hear a scream, keep in mind it’s not necessarily a reaction to a cockroach — it could be in celebration of a favorite team’s long-awaited winning touchdown.