Tag Archives: emotion

High unemployment makes song lyrics angrier — but not sadder or anxious

Music helps us estimate how healthy a country’s economy is, a new study surprisingly reveals. More to the point, national unemployment rates can predict the negative emotional content in lyrics in a country’s songs.

Image via Pixabay.

Songs have a very powerful emotional component, and past research has shown that people tend to listen to tunes that match their current moods or preoccupations. Starting from that chain of thought, a new paper aimed to find if music can be used to estimate the socioeconomic health of a community (in this case, a country).

The team worked with popular song lyrics from the US and Germany and report that unemployment rates predicted feelings of anger portrayed in songs in both countries.

Rage against the economy

“This study aimed to examine how sentiments in top songs coincide with changes in national unemployment rate. In particular, we focused on three common negative emotions (i.e., anxiety, sadness, and anger) expressed in lyrics,” the researchers say.

For the study, the team used a text analysis program called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to trawl through the lyrics of the top 10 most popular songs in the US and Germany between 1980 and 2017. Songs with no lyrics were removed from the analysis.

The final sample of US songs included 370 lyrics (149,660 words) while the German sample totaled 366 lyrics (120,076 words). From there, the team used the LIWC to estimate emotional content in three categories: anger, sadness, and anxiety. They also looked at how word frequency denoting each emotion compared to unemployment rates in each country at the time these songs were written.

At first, the team writes, there seems to be no discernible link between unemployment rates and such negative emotional content in music. However, after controlling for other. elements that impact individuals’ economic prospects, especially ones that tie into inflation (GDP per capita, housing prices, inflation, and population density), the unemployment rate showed itself to be a “significant predictor” of anger content in US lyrics, they report.

German lyrics fared similarly: there was no immediate discernable link between unemployment and sadness or anger. After controlling for the same indicators, however, it was a good predictor of anger in lyrics.

As to why this dynamic forms, the authors have two theories. The first one is that socioeconomic factors can impact the emotional state, and thus behavior, of consumers. High rates of unemployment can nurture feelings of stress and anger, and consumers might favor songs that reflect such a state, driving them up in the charts. The second theory is that such factors impact artists and composers who transpose their feelings of stress and anger into their work.

The explanation could, of course, lie somewhere in the middle of these tho theories.

One interesting tidbit of these findings is that sadness or anxiety didn’t seem to change in response to employment rate — suggesting that anger is the primary public response to poor economic prospects.

“This is consistent with preliminary research illustrating that unemployment can lead to various affective responses, but the central emotional response is anger when the adversity is attributed to external causes,” the paper reads.

One of the study’s most obvious limitations is that it only looked at the lyrical component of songs, ignoring the musical frame around them. This frame could alter the emotional message being conveyed by the songs. It also focused on two countries in the Western world. Thus, it is unclear whether dramatically different cultures would show the same response.

In the future, the authors plan to control for “melodic attributes” in songs as well, in order to better gauge their emotional content.

The paper “Unemployment Rate Predicts Anger in Popular Music Lyrics: Evidence From Top 10 Songs in the United States and Germany From 1980 to 2017” has been published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.

Most people struggle to read cats’ expressions, but “cat whisperers” don’t

Researchers at the University of Guelph (UoG) found that you’re probably bad at reading the emotions in a cat’s face — unless you’re a “cat whisperer”.

Image via Pixabay.

Most people have a hard time picking up on the emotions hidden in a cat’s facial expression. Cats use non-vocal cues such as body pose and facial expressions to communicate a wealth of information, but these behaviors and grimaces tend to be very subtle, flying under the radar of most humans. Some people, new research has found, are very good at understanding these cues — a group the team calls “cat whisperers”.

Overall, women and people with veterinary experience were better than average at recognizing a cat’s expression, even those that said they don’t feel a strong attachment to cats.

Dropping hints

“The ability to read animals’ facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment. Our finding that some people are outstanding at reading these subtle clues suggests it’s a skill more people can be trained to do,” said Prof. Lee Niel, who led the study with Prof. Georgia Mason, both from UoG’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

The team explains that previous research into this topic only focused on expressions of pain, not fear, frustration, or positive emotions.

For their study, the team recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries. The participants were asked to watch 20 short online videos of cats from a collection of 40 videos (most of them from YouTube) and then complete a series of online questionnaires.

These videos showed cats expressing positive emotional states (usually involving situations that the animal sought out, just as receiving a treat or a pat) or negative states (cats retreating, fleeing, or experiencing health problems), but none showed expressions of fear, such as flattened ears or bared teeth — the team explains that these expressions are already widely understood by people. The videos focused on the cat’s face (eyes, muzzle, and mouth).

Each participant was asked to indicate whether the cat was experiencing a positive state, a negative one, or if they were unsure as to what the animal was feeling.

Most participants said they found the test challenging, and the results reflected this. The average score was 12 out of 20 correct answers, which is just about as accurate as a coinflip. However, 13% of the participants scored around 15 out of 20 correct answers: these are the “cat whisperers”. Women were more likely than men to be cat whisperers, as were veterinarians or vet technicians compared to other professions. Overall, younger adults tended to score better than older adults.

“The fact that women generally scored better than men is consistent with previous research that has shown that women appear to be better at decoding non-verbal displays of emotion, both in humans and dogs,” said Mason, who worked on the study along with post-doctoral researchers Jenna Cheal and Lauren Dawson.

In a rather surprising find, whether or not a participant reported a strong attachment to cats had no bearing on how well they scored. The team says their findings suggest that it is possible to train people to better read cats’ facial expressions. You can test your ability to read a cat’s expression using this test the team put together.

“This is important to be able to do because it could help strengthen the bond between owners and cats, and so improve cat care and welfare,” said Niel.

The paper “Humans can identify cats’ affective states from subtle facial expressions” has been published in the journal Animal Welfare.


These fishes get sad when their partner is away — pointing to the roots of romantic love

Humans aren’t the only ones who get sad when their significant other isn’t around, new research from the University of Burgundy, Dijon, France, reveals.


Amatitlania siquia.
Image via Wikimedia.

Amatitlania siquia may only be a small fish, but its heart is really big — metaphorically speaking. This species is monogamous, with individuals forming durable, tight parings and cooperating closely as partners to build nests and rear their young. This made them an ideal test subject to see whether animals also feel negative emotional effects when separated from their partner — and, according to the new study, they do.

Till death do us part

“To the best of our knowledge, this study is the very first demonstration of emotional attachment to the sexual partner in a non-human species. The effect of the absence of the sexual partner on the mood of the individual has never observed in any other species so far,” Dr. François-Xavier Dechaume-Moncharmont, the paper’s corresponding author, told me in an email.

“Please note that we do not say that such an emotional attachment does not exist in other species, but it was not the subject of research so far. Incidentally, it is also the first use of the cognitive judgment bias test in a fish species.”

The team of biologists from the University of Burgundy managed to objectively quantify the emotional shift the fishes felt when separated from their partner. When this partner was removed, they report, the fishes became pessimistic, suggesting that they do indeed form emotional attachments to their sexual partners. The findings raise the question of whether such attachments offer an evolutionary or adaptive edge to the fish and, by extension, if these advantages also hold true for humans.

The main accepted reason for why humans form emotional attachments to their partners is that this should help promote stability in the couple and allow both parents to focus on raising the children instead of fighting and bickering. Two parents are better than one, as the old saying goes, so this propensity of ours to form attachments to our partners was likely a key component of our success as a species throughout the ages.

The team was curious to see if other monogamous species that form long-lasting couples rely on the same strategy. However, they first had a hurdle to overcome — assessing such subjective feelings in an animal model that can’t tell you what emotions they are experiencing. So, for the study, the authors adapted a technique devised for and used in psychology — the judgment bias test.

“How can we measure the mood in a fish species? The solution was to try transposing the judgement bias test in a fish species, a non-verbal animal species,” Dechaume-Moncharmont explained “To do so, we had to teach the fish to open artificial box, which was not trivial but the videos are quite illustrative.”

In essence, what the team did was train the fish to discern between two types of boxes — one empty and one containing a tasty reward in the form of a plump larva — based on their color. The reward box was black, and the empty one was white. After the fish got the hang of it, the researchers mixed things up by presenting the animals with a grey-colored box.

The idea behind the experiment is to use the speed with which the fishes open box as a proxy for their emotional state. How fast the fishes opened it indicates their mood. Optimistic individuals are expected to respond more rapidly (“glass half full”) than the pessimistic ones (“glass half empty”). The team reports that — much the same case as with humans — the absence of the partner affected the fishes’ mood, making them more pessimistic.

The team explains what this level of emotional attachment between partners is the first criteria for characterizing romantic love, which is fundamentally perceived as a unique property of our species. In other words, at least parts of the whole that we call ‘romantic love’ aren’t human-specific.

In the future, the team plans to see how long these negative effects on mood can last for, and how they relate to each individual’s sexual choices.

“We would also like to assess the existence of such an emotional attachment to the partner in other species. We predict that other monogamous species are good candidates,” Dechaume-Moncharmont adds. “If the independent evolution of such attachments is confirmed in several phylogenetically distant species, it could indicate that these emotional biases are maybe more than bias, that they may have some adaptive values.”

“Love is maybe not so irrational.”

The paper “Pair-bonding influences affective state in a monogamous fish species” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Ravens can transmit negative emotions from one another, just like humans

One of the ravens that participated in the experiments in Austria. Credit: Jessie E.C. Adriaense.

Ravens are some of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom, so it’s no wonder to hear about studies that attribute human-like qualities to these birds. According to recent research, ravens may develop a bad mood when exposed to sulky peers — a psychological phenomenon which is known as negative emotional contagion.

The mood virus

Humans represent the most complex social species on the planet, having devoted incredibly sophisticated verbal and non-verbal tools to communicate with other people. To make social interactions more efficient, humans have also developed various means of reading the emotions and thoughts of those around us. Such skills can even mean the difference between life and death — which explains the evolutionary pressure that led to their proliferation. For instance, we can instantly judge whether another person is in pain from their facial expression, which tells us both that person is in need of help as well as that danger may be lurking nearby. What’s more, another person’s emotions can be quickly transmitted to us.

Studies have shown that simply looking at a person’s facial expressions causes us to adopt a similar facial expression, most often without even realizing it. So, it seems like our social interactions are underlined by shared emotions interfaced by an unconscious emotional mimicry. To top it all, there’s such a thing as emotional contagion — the process in which one person catches and feels another’s emotional state without realizing that the emotion is not really their own. Examples of this phenomenon include the excitement rising among fans in a football stadium, panic spreading through a crowd, and laughter spreading through an audience.

In a new study, researchers show that emotional contagion may also be present among ravens (Corvus corax). These birds are considered among the most intelligent animals—they can anticipate the future, pull fishing lines out of ice holes, make tools from memory, and imitate wolves in order to attract and entice them to break open a tough carcass for food. Given their superior intellect and keen social behavior, researchers wondered whether ravens also exhibit emotional contagion.

The team designed a series of experiments which gauged negative emotional contagion, which is more plainly evident than positive emotions. The researchers at the University of Vienna and the University of Zurich paired eight ravens for the experiments, where each pair was given a choice between a box containing nothing and one containing cheese (their favorite treat). After the birds learned which box was either empty or filled with cheese, the birds were presented with a third box.

This third box was intended to gauge optimism or pessimism — a type of experiment commonly known as a cognitive bias test. In the last part of the experiment, the birds were separated and then one of them was given either carrots (not their favorite) or dried dog food (which they love). The other raven could only observe how the other mate was behaving but was not allowed to see the food of choice. A cognitive bias test was given again by the researchers.

When the ravens saw their paired mates behaving in a negative way, they took longer to investigate the third box presented to them. This suggests that the bad ‘mood’ was transferred to the observer. Ravens who observed normal behavior also exhibited normal behavior.

Studies such as these might help unravel the origin of this quirky psychological phenomenon as well as broader behaviors such as empathy. Previously, researchers found evidence of emotional contagion among other non-human animals, such as monkeys and dogs.

“This result critically expands upon observational studies of contagious play in ravens, providing experimental evidence that emotional contagion is present not only in mammalian but also in avian species. Importantly, this finding also acts as a stepping stone toward understanding the evolution of empathy, as this essential social skill may have emerged across these taxa in response to similar socioecological challenges,” the authors wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Faces balloons.

Researchers map how our sensitivity to emotions change over time

We tend to become more emotionally-resilient as we age, a new study suggests.

Faces balloons.

Image credits Gino Crescoli.

Adults tend to have an overall more positive attitude than adolescents, and it may be because they’re less able to pick up on negative emotions, a new paper reports.

Why the long face?

“We found that sensitivity to anger cues improves dramatically during early to mid-adolescence,” says first author Lauren Rutter from the McLean Hospital, Massachusetts. “This is the exact age when young people are most attuned to forms of social threat, such as bullying. The normal development of anger sensitivity can contribute to some of the challenges that arise during this phase of development.”

The team developed a digital test (using the web platform TestMyBrain.org) to gauge the levels of emotion sensitivity across age and socioeconomic groups. Nearly 10,000 participants aged 10 to 85 completed their survey. The test was designed to measure how easily each person picked up on subtle differences in facial cues for fear, anger, and happiness — and, given the wide and diverse sample group, how this sensitivity fluctuates over time.

Each participant was shown images of different faces, presented in pairs, and was asked to compare and contrast the levels of anger, happiness, and fear they conveyed — through questions such as “Which face is more angry?”, etc. The online platform helped the researchers tap into a “much larger and more diverse sample set” than previous studies, Rutter says, and the novel testing method helped improve the accuracy of the results for decoding facial cues.

All in all, the study revealed that sensitivity to facial cues for anger and fear decreases as people age — but the sensitivity to happiness holds firm. The team says that these findings mirror previous studies and anecdotal evidence that point to declines in the ability of people to decode emotional cues, but that the results pertaining to happiness are novel.

 “These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook,” Rutter adds.

“It’s well established that there is an age-related decline in the ability to decode emotion cues, in general, but here we see very little decline in the ability to detect differences in happiness,” co-author Laura Germine adds. “This is even though the study was designed to be sensitive to differences in happiness sensitivity with age, based on principles from psychometrics and signal detection theory.

The team plans to expand on their findings by examining how emotional sensitivity fluctuates in relation to differences in mental health, such as anxiety disorders. They also want to investigate how sensitivity to anger and happiness cues might be related to the development of poorer mental health after trauma.

The paper “Emotion sensitivity across the lifespan: Mapping clinical risk periods to sensitivity to facial emotion intensity” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Goats can tell when you’re happy — and they like it when you smile

Not only can goats tell when people are happy, but they also prefer interacting with happy people.

Goats at the Buttercups Sanctuary. Image credits: Christian Nawroth.

It took us a while to figure it out and prove it, but now we know that animals feel and have empathy. Not only do they understand each others’ emotions, but they can also understand our emotions — something which is especially visible in pets, and even more so with dogs. As our closest companions since the dawn of time, dogs have greatly familiarized themselves with our mood and way of life, even evolving alongside us.

But dogs aren’t the only domestic animals that can read our emotions.

In the first study to ever assess this on goats, researchers explain that goats can differentiate between happy and angry facial reactions, and they prefer happy ones. Dr. Alan McElligott who led the study at Queen Mary University of London and is now based at the University of Roehampton, said:

“The study has important implications for how we interact with livestock and other species, because the abilities of animals to perceive human emotions might be widespread and not just limited to pets.”

Bernard the goat clearly likes happy people.

During the study, which was carried out at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England, researchers showed 20 goats grey-scale pairs of unfamiliar human faces, exhibiting happy or angry emotions. The team reports that happy faces elicit greater interactions — goats were more likely to reach out to them and explore with their snouts. Furthermore, this was particularly prevalent when the happy faces were positioned on the right, suggesting that the goats use their left (opposite) brain hemisphere to process positive emotions. Overall, this shows just how adept goats have become at reading human body language.

First author Dr. Christian Nawroth, who worked on the study at Queen Mary University of London but is now based at Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, praises goats’ ability to ‘read’ humans and says that while their ability was previously hinted on, this is the first study that shows goat prefer happy people.

McElligott with a goat which clearly likes that he’s happy. Image credits: Alan McElligott.

“We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know how they react to different human emotional expressions, such as anger and happiness. Here, we show for the first time that goats do not only distinguish between these expressions, but they also prefer to interact with happy ones.”

The study of emotion perception has already revealed complex capabilities in dogs and horses, says co-author Natalia Albuquerque, from the University of Sao Paulo. But this opens up a whole new avenue, paving the way for studying emotion perception on all domestic animals. It wouldn’t be surprising if, to some extent, all animals can tell when we’re happy.

The study has been published in Royal Society Open Science.

Crystals of Kaydor.

The right video game can help children develop empathy and better emotional control

Empathy is a skill that can be learned, new research shows. The research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping middle schoolers develop it in the most entertaining way possible — with a video game.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Crystals of Kaydor, the Adventures of…. Lettucehead..?
Image credits Center for Healthy Minds / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On a distant planet, one space-braving robot explorer is forced to crash-land his spaceship. Bits and pieces scatter everywhere, and our intrepid explorer is now stranded. Needless to say, it’s not his best day. Luckily for the bot, however, the planet is inhabited. The locals don’t speak his language, but the robot can gather the pieces needed to fix his ship by building emotional rapport with them.

The robot is played by the middle schoolers, and the whole scenario is a video game — one that can help kids become more empathetic, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) that study how learning empathy changes the brain.

The game of empathy

“The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime — with or without video games,” says co-author Tammi Kral.

The game, named Crystals of Kaydor, was created by the team for this study and it is designed to teach empathy.

The team worked with 150 middle schoolers in two groups. One played Crystals of Kaydor, while the second group played a commercially available game called Bastion. I can attest that this latter is quite an enjoyable adventure game, but it does not target empathy in any way.

Kids rake an average of over 70 minutes of gameplay each day, the team notes. This time tends to increase during adolescence, which coincides with a period of rapid brain development. Teenagers are also highly susceptible to developing feelings of anxiety and depression during this stage of their lives, and they’re also likely to run into bullies. The team’s plan was to see if their game could help them develop emotional finesse during this often confusing period of the children’s lives.

In the game, kids have to interact with the crashlanded alien. However, players can’t understand the character’s language, and must learn to identify the emotions he’s feeling as well as their intensities from his expression — luckily, the alien exhibits the same range of emotions as a human being, and they’re accompanied by humanlike facial expressions. The game is intended to help the kids practice and develop empathy. The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game.

Neural connectivity changes.

Training-related increases in neural connectivity after Crystals relative to Bastion. Significant group-wide connectivity changes in red, significant differences per individual participants in blue.
Image credits Tammi A. Kral et al., 2018, npj Science of Learning.

By contrast, kids who played Bastion embarked in a storyline where they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

According to Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds and paper co-author, empathy is the foundation of prosocial behavior, and as such, an important skill for our children to develop.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” says Davidson.

“Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

Did it work?

The team took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from both groups before and after the gaming phase of the study. Both groups played for two weeks. After the two weeks, the team compared the connections between different areas of the brain, focusing on those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. Participants also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathized with others.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Several screenshots depicting the player-controlled robot, the emotion recognition mechanics — which include selecting an emotion and its intensity — and other game mechanics.

After the two weeks of play, kids in the first group showed greater connectivity in brain networks associated with empathy and perspective thinking, the team reports. Some among them exhibited changes in neural networks linked with emotion regulation as well. The team says this last skill is crucial and begins developing around this age — and their game can help promote healthy development.

Kids that played Bastion also showed more robust neural connectivity in brain areas that underpin empathy — however, the effect was much less pronounced than that seen in the Crystals of Kaydor group. They further report that kids in the first group who showed increase connectivity in brain areas related to emotion regulation also scored better on the empathy test after the two week period.

Kids who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” says Davidson.

“One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Davidson adds that simply teaching empathy skills to groups that have trouble with them, including individuals on the autism spectrum, may be an accessible way to improve their quality of life.

The game is currently only being used for research purposes and is not available to the public, but it has helped inform other games that are currently being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications. The research was funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The paper “Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial” has been published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

Neon bookshop sign.

Talking in a foreign language makes our decision more about utility, less about emotion

The language you use when making a decision makes a huge difference in the outcome. Psychologists from the University of Chicago (UOC) report that people communicating in a foreign language base their decision more on maximizing utility than on emotion or social expectations.

Neon bookshop sign.

Image credits Alpha / Flickr.

Would you push a bystander in front of a train knowing he would die if it would save five others? Would you do it if you pondered the issue in say, German or French? Research shows that in the latter case, you probably would. UOC psychologists have previously found that people communicating in a foreign language when wrestling with such an issue are far more likely to sacrifice the bystander than those who use their native tongue. A new paper published by the same university builds on those findings to explain why language meddles with out decision-making process.

Speaking is believing


“Until now, we and others have described how using a foreign language affects the way that we think,” said Boaz Keysar, a UOC psychology professor and paper co-author.

“We always had explanations, but they were not tested directly. This is really the first paper that explains why, with evidence.”

Keysar and his team used the train dilemma to see if bilinguals speaking in a foreign tongue are nudged towards different decisions by a reduction in emotional response, an increase in their desire for maximizing ‘good’ in a utilitarian sense, or a combination of the two.

Their results suggested that people using a foreign language “were not any more concerned with maximizing the greater good” than their native-speaking fellows. But they did show less aversion to violating social taboos which “can interfere with making utility-maximizing choices,” the team details. Their theory is that when speaking in a foreign language people can put some emotional distance between them and the question — allowing them to take a more utilitarian approach to the issue.

“I thought it was very surprising,” Keysar said. “My prediction was that we’d find that the difference is in how much they care about the common good. But it’s not that at all.”

The findings align well with previous research from the team, which shows people speaking in foreign language tend to be more logical and utility focused. It makes you slow down and concentrate on what you’re hearing and saying, all of which puts you in a more deliberative state of mind. As a side-effect, this makes saving five people seem much more important (in an utilitarian sense) than saving a single person.

Where does emotion fit in?

Keysar, however, had a hunch that emotion also plays a part in this equation. His native language is Hebrew, and for him, English simply doesn’t deliver the same deep-seated emotional resonance as Hebrew. His second language was thought in a classroom, not at home with family while growing up, so it didn’t have the same emotional connections built-in. Keysar’s theory was that this emotional coldness of non-native languages can then seep into our decision-making process.

“Your native language is acquired from your family, from your friends, from television,” said lead author Sayuri Hayakawa, a UOC doctoral student in psichology. “It becomes infused with all these emotions.”

But “less emotional” and “more utilitarian” are two states of mind that would produce the same observable behavior. To help comb the two apart, the team worked with University of Chicago Booth School of Business postdoctoral research fellow David Tannenbaum, an expert in process dissociation. Together, they performed six studies with six different groups, including native speakers of English, German, and Spanish. Each participant spoke at least one of the other two languages so that all combinations were equally represented. Participants were randomly tasked to use either their native language or second language throughout the experiment.


For the trial, each participant was asked to read paired scenarios that had key “systematic” differences. For example, instead of being asked whether they’d sacrifice a man to save five people from death, the team might ask if they’d kill him to protect five people from light injury. In other words, the taboo part (killing somebody) was still there, but the consequences varied. Pool enough of these scenarios together, and you start getting a picture of what people look to when making a choice.

“We found that people using a foreign language were not paying any more attention to the lives saved, but definitely were less averse to breaking these kinds of rules,” Hayakawa adds.

“So if you ask the classic question, ‘Is it the head or the heart?’ It seems that the foreign language gets to the heart.”

The next steps are to find out why this happens. It could be the case that speaking and thinking in a foreign language tones down how people imagine the consequences of their choice, making the sacrifice feel less dramatic than they would otherwise think. Or it could be that a different language affects which memories get recalled during the decision-making process, skewing people’s choices.

Another important next step is to see if these lab results translate to real-world situations in which the stakes are high and people are under a lot of pressure. For example, Keysar’s team will be looking at how parties in peace negotiations in Israel assess the same proposal differently based on which language it’s written in.

The full paper “Thinking More or Feeling Less? Explaining the Foreign-Language Effect on Moral Judgment” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

Dogs can tell when you’re happy or upset, study shows

Science confirms what every dog owner has known in his heart: our canine friends can tell when we’re happy or upset. The discovery represents the first solid evidence that an animal other than humans can discriminate between emotional expressions on other species.

The experimental setup used for testing the dogs’ ability to distinguish between emotions. CREDIT: ANJULI BARBER, MESSERLI RESEARCH INSTITUTE

“We think the dogs in our study could have solved the task only by applying their knowledge of emotional expressions in humans to the unfamiliar pictures we presented to them,” says Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

In this new study, the dogs distinguished between an angry face and a happy face (of the same person) – and they did so in convincing fashion. After training on 15 picture pairs, the dogs were only shown the upper or the lower half of the face. They were tested on four types of trials:

  1. the same half of the faces as in the training but of novel faces,
  2. the other half of the faces used in training
  3. the other half of novel faces
  4. the left half of the faces used in training.

The dogs weren’t able to always figure out the happy face, but they did it often enough to show that they can distinguish the emotions. The study also showed that the dogs can learn and adapt what  they’ve learned to new situations.

“Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before,” says Ludwig Huber, senior author and head of the group at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna’s Messerli Research Institute.

Müller and Huber report that the dogs were slower to learn to associate an angry face with a reward, which suggests that they already have a good idea about what they can expect when humans are happy and angry.

“We expect to gain important insights into the extraordinary bond between humans and one of their favorite pets, and into the emotional lives of animals in general,” Müller says.

Journal Reference: Current Biology, Müller et al.: “Dogs can discriminate emotional expressions of human faces”

humiliated cat

Humiliation may be the most intense of human emotions

humiliated cat

Photo: worldwidewhiskers.wordpress.com

If you look back, you’ll find that some of your most treasured memories are linked to powerful emotions, be them positive or negative. Somehow, it may seem that negative emotions linger longer in our lives, long after the event that triggered them passed. Now, research has garnered tantalizing proof that suggests the most intense of human emotions is humiliation.

The rainbow of feelings

Love, hate, happiness, anger, dismay, relief. Our whole lives are influenced and governed by a whole spectrum of emotions – it’s what makes us human after all. Gift and curse, feelings make life worth living, even though at times they can cause terrible pain that makes you wish you were never born. Such is life, yet some feelings are more intense than other. Is there a master emotion dominating all the rest by magnitude or is everything kept in a delicate balance of negative and positive, action and reaction, ying and yang? If there were such a thing, the feeling of being humiliated might take the emotional crown.

Marte Otten and Kai Jonas, both psychologists, decided to investigate some claims that humiliation is a particularly intense, even unique, human emotion with great personal and social consequences. Some humiliating scenes can haunt people all their lives and leave dents in personalities that are had to mend. In extreme cases, humiliation may be responsible for war and strife. Otten and Jonas knew, like most of us, that humiliation is intense, but their efforts led them to turn this view into an objective analysis.

Dissecting humiliation

The researchers performed two separate studies. In the first one, they asked participants, both male and female, to read short stories involving different emotions, and had to imagine how they’d feel in the described scenarios. The first study compared humiliation (e.g. your internet date takes one look at you and walks out), anger (e.g. your roommate has a party and wrecks the room while you’re away) and happiness (e.g. you find out a person you fancy likes you). The second study compared humiliation with anger and shame (e.g. you said some harsh words to your mother and she cried).

Throughout the reading and imagination process, all participants had an EEG strapped to their scalps which read their brain activity. Two measures particularly interested in the researchers: a larger positive spike (known as the “late positive potential” or LPP); and evidence of “event-related desynchronization”, a marker of reduced activity in the alpha range. Both these measures are signs of greater cognitive processing and cortical activation.

Imagining being humiliated resulted in higher LPPs and more event-related desynchronizations than any other emotion.

“This supports the idea that humiliation is a particularly intense and cognitively demanding negative emotional experience that has far-reaching consequences for individuals and groups alike,” they concluded.

The study tells us that humiliation causes strain on the brain’s resources and mobilizes more brain power, but it doesn’t tell us why this happens. It’s a cause, not an effect. The researchers have yet to identify the mechanism that leads to this neural build-up. Then, the study setting itself wasn’t the best for this kind of evaluation. Imagining your being humiliated or falling in love doesn’t come close to the real thing (you can’t expect to cause genuine feelings of humiliation in a study either). At best, the study does indeed lend credence that humiliation is the master emotion relative to intensity, but it’s far from being a settled thing. Where’s all the love?

The findings appeared in the journal Social Neuroscience.

Mapping our bodily emotions

Researchers from the Aalto University in Finland have revealed how the most common emotions are experienced in the body.

Different emotions are associated with discernible patterns of bodily sensations. (Credit: Image courtesy of Aalto University). Red areas represent an increase in activity/sensation, and blue ones represent a decrease.

Emotions are a very good way of preparing us for environmental challenges. It has been known for quite some time that our emotions trigger physical reactions in our body, and the bodily maps of these sensations were topographically different for different emotions. For example, anxiety may be associated with chest pain, while being excited or in love can develop a general feeling of being warm.

“Emotions adjust not only our mental, but also our bodily states. This way the prepare us to react swiftly to the dangers, but also to the opportunities such as pleasurable social interactions present in the environment. Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness,” tells assistant professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Aalto University.

The research was carried online, and it relied on subjects responding to certain stimuli. Over 700 individuals from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan took part in the study, with the researchers inducing certain emotional states to the subjects. They were then asked to colour human body images with red where they felt increased activity and with blue where they felt reduced activity.

“The findings have major implications for our understanding of the functions of emotions and their bodily basis. On the other hand, the results help us to understand different emotional disorders and provide novel tools for their diagnosis.”

The emotional patterns were consistent throughout the different cultures, which goes to show that emotions are experienced in pretty much the same way by all people, regardless of age, sex, and culture – the bodily sensations are biological functions.

Journal Reference:

  1. L. Nummenmaa, E. Glerean, R. Hari, J. K. Hietanen. Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111