Dr. Harold Gouzoules, Emory University - Psychology of Screaming

Jan 20, 2014

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Harold Gouzoules of Emory University explains the psychology of screaming in humans and other primates.

Harold Gouzoules is a professor of psychology at Emory University where his research interests include animal behavior, primate social behavior and communication, and vocal communication in primates. His current research project is examining the evolution and ethology of screams in human and nonhuman primates. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

About Dr. Gouzoules

Dr. Harold Gouzoules - Psychology of Screaming

Many animal species are known to scream and these vocalizations most likely first evolved as a way to startle an attacking predator and provide a chance to escape.  In some social animals, screams are also a means to recruit help when in trouble with members of your own species.  Our earlier research on several species of monkeys, for example, revealed that an attacked individual’s screams recruit assistance from its kin and allies. These loud and distinctive vocalizations provide information about the victim’s situation to its supporters, even when they are some distance away.

Curiously, there has been little formal study of human screams, so our current research is addressing some preliminary questions.  We know that people scream in a variety of contexts. Do we use different kinds of screams in different situations, and can we discriminate those screams and interpret them? In our studies, we present different types of screams to study participants via a computer program and headphones and then have them respond to a series of questions about what they hear.

The results show that participants are good at discriminating the specific emotional state of the screamer, for example, whether they are excited and happy, or fearful, or whether they are experiencing pain, or are annoyed, or being aggressive. Females are better than males at these tasks, as are those participants who score high on measures of empathy. Participants are also very good at identifying whether a pair of screams is from the same individual or two different individuals. This is a critical part of being able to recognize the identity of a screamer.

I think screams are inherently interesting vocalizations, but there are also potential human health applications of research on screams as there are multiple psychiatric disorders that involve screaming behavior.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.