The jaggedness or curviness of a font can be used to express an emotional tone


Death metal band logos often have a spiky look while romance novel titles often have a swirly script.

The jaggedness or curviness of a font can be used to express an emotional tone.

A Dartmouth study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that sounds, shapes, speech and body movements convey emotional arousal the same way across the senses.

Characteristic angry and sad drawings from study 3, after smoothing and corner detection. Corners are marked with red ‘+’ signs. Among the study’s participants, angry drawings had a mean of 23.3 corners, while sad drawings had a mean of 6.6 corners. Credit: Graphic compiled by Beau Sievers. (Figure 5 from the paper).

The findings explain why nearly anything can have an emotional tone, including art, architecture and music.

“Our study set out to better understand how we express and read emotional arousal, which is fundamental to our core emotional state.

We wanted to see if there is a low-level mechanism that allows us to decode emotional arousal information from the movements and sounds that people and animals make,” says lead author Beau Sievers, a postdoctoral student of psychology at Harvard University, who was a graduate student in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth at the time of the study.

“Our results show how the spectral centroid, or the balance of high-frequency versus low-frequency energy present in sounds, shapes and movements, allows us to express and understand emotional arousal,” adds Sievers.

The spectral centroid is essentially a multi-sensory measure of spikyness.

The results explain why Zen gardens and brutalist architecture have very different emotional effects, as well as why things like clouds and lullabies seem to go together even though one is seen and the other is heard: We match them based on the spectral centroid.

“In a series of studies, we demonstrate that people automatically perceive the frequency spectrum of whatever is coming into their ears and eyes and compute the average – the spectral centroid,” explains senior author Thalia Wheatley, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, and principal investigator of the Dartmouth Social Systems Laboratory .

“This is how people quickly identify the amount of emotional arousal in a person’s voices and movements but also in abstract shapes and sounds, such as why spiky shapes seem to convey higher arousal than rounded shapes,” she added.

To test whether the spectral centroid is used to express and understand emotional arousal, the researchers conducted five mini-studies, some of which asked participants to make judgements about the emotional arousal of shapes, sounds and movements.

The researchers tested if the spectral centroid of the stimulus could be used to predict participants’ emotional arousal judgements.

The following are highlights from three of the mini-studies:

  • The authors used a computer program to randomly create hundreds of shapes and sounds. Participants were asked to look at shapes and listen to sounds and judge their levels of emotional arousal. As the study reports, shapes and sounds which had a high spectral centroid were associated with high-arousal emotions (angry, excited), whereas the lower spectral centroid shapes and sounds were associated with low-arousal emotions (sad, peaceful).
  • Participants were asked to draw shapes that were angry, sad, excited, or peaceful. The researchers then estimated the spectral centroids of the drawings by counting how many corners they had. The results revealed that angry and excited shapes had between 17 and 24 corners on average, while sad and peaceful shapes had between 7 and 9 corners on average. The spectral centroid could be used to predict the emotional arousal of shapes with close to 80 percent accuracy.
  • The researchers examined real-world recordings of people’s body movements or of people speaking (in German), to see if the spectral centroid of the voices and movements could be used to predict participants judgements of emotional arousal. The researchers found that higher spectral centroids predicted judgements of higher emotional arousal.

The researchers explain that multi-sensory associations with emotions have been known for a long time but why they occur has been a mystery until now.

Physically, we use our voice, facial expressions. gestures and posture to convey a wide range of emotional cues from the subtle to the dramatic. Typefaces and the way they are used provide a similarly extensive emotional range typogr


In 1933 Poffenberger and Barrows explored how shapes and simple as lines could communicate emotions.

Their theory was that when we look at a line our eyes move along the shape.

This turns it into a physical experience that reminds us of the body language we use to express our emotions.

They asked participants to match emotions form a line to each of the 18 curved and jagged lines sloping in different directions.

A line going downwards was shown to make us feel “doleful,” while a “joyous” like takes our eyes upwards.

Each of our emotions contains a whole range of feelings and these nuances can also be conveyed typographically. Psychologists Samuel Juni and Julie Gross asked 102 New York University students to read a satirical article from The New York Times. Each was given the reading randomly printed in either Arial or Times New Roman.

Afterwards they were asked to rate their response to what they had read.

They rated the article as being funnier and angrier, in other words more satirical, when it was read in Times New Roman.

There is a parallel between what we experience in the physical world and how this influences our interpretation of typeface shapes.

Type can be seen as mirroring the emotions we display in the real world through our facial expressions and gestures.

When we are happy our faces become round with a wide smile and our body language is open.

By contrast, an angry frown expression is pinched and angel and an attacking animal is all jagged teeth and claws.

Type also mirrors the way your handwriting communicates your mood or emotions. When writing quickly your mood is italicised and when angry it becomes bold and deliberate.

Extract taken from Why Fonts Matter by Sarah Hyndman.

More information: Beau Sievers et al. A multi-sensory code for emotional arousal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.0513

Journal information: Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Provided by Dartmouth College


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