The cry as a multiply specified signal of distress

Date of Completion

January 1998


Psychology, Social|Psychology, Developmental




The infant cry was shown to be a communicative signal consisting of multimodal behaviors that are used by perceivers in the identification of infant distress. The infant's facial, vocal and bodily actions during crying were examined for their communicative efficacy in conveying negative infant affect. Videotaped cries of 3-, 6-, 8- and 12-month-old infants were digitally edited to isolate the facial, vocal and bodily signals within the cry and were presented to non-parent perceivers. Perceivers were able, in many conditions, to determine infant distress level from the signals within the cry. These results indicated that information about negative affect is available in multiple modalities, suggesting that the message of distress is "multiply specified" during crying. The voice and face were the most effective signals in conveying infant discomfort. In contrast, bodily actions did not provide reliable information for perceivers about level of distress. Developmental transitions in the perception of infant distress were found, with facial expression of affect less effectively signaling the infant's discomfort. The voice, a potent communicative signal throughout the infant's first year, emerged as the principal signal of negative affect. These results shed new light on the perception and production of the infant cry signal with development. ^