Emotion and the Perception of Loudness in Speech: An examination of whether emotional reactions to certain words can affect how loud they are perceived to be.
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This study investigates interactions between the emotional content of spoken language and the perception of a subjective auditory sensation, loudness. Specifically, I examine whether or not a listener’s emotional reactions to certain words can modulate how loud that word is perceived to be. While loudness may seem to be an acoustic property, the intensity of a sound does not necessarily correlate with its perceived loudness. Certain speech sounds, for example, may differ in intensity by up to 5 decibels and nevertheless be perceived as equally loud. Research has demonstrated that emotional reactions to linguistic and non-linguistic stimuli may modulate perception in a number of ways, such as making hills seem steeper or coins seem larger. Recent experiments suggest that the perception of loudness can be magnified in response to negatively conditioned auditory stimuli; however it is yet unknown whether negative emotional content in language may elicit similar effects. Such an effect seems plausible given numerous findings suggesting that emotional content in language may modulate perception as well as neurobiological evidence suggesting that the amygdala, which has been strongly implicated in the processing of emotion, may affect neural activation in the auditory cortex. To test this hypothesis, an experiment was conducted in which participants were tasked with comparing the loudness of two words. Results suggest that listeners perceive swear words to be louder than comparable neutral words and in contrast to the neutral control stimuli this effect cannot be attributed to acoustic factors. However, the results must be treated with caution as phonemic factors between the stimuli may have influenced responses. A mechanism for increasing the loudness of certain auditory stimuli may reflect general evolutionary biases in attention towards sensory stimuli that are relevant to the observer, e.g. threat detection. While the possible influence of confounding factors cannot be entirely ruled out, this study provides a solid foundation for future research into this phenomenon