The science of ROARING!

03 July 2018

Interview with

Dr Jordan Raine - University of Sussex

What are non-verbal vocalisations, such as roars, actually for? Georgia Mills has been investigating...

Georgia - Roaring is the domain of the lion, and the tiger, and the T. Rex. But perhaps not something you’d readily associate with people.

But if you’ve watched a football game or an episode of Game of Thrones you will have experienced the mighty human roar… but what are roars actually for?

Jordan Raine is a Behavioural Ethologist from the University of Sussex and he’s interested in non-verbal communication like roaring...

Jordan - Available evidence suggests that these non-verbal vocalisations essentially communicate the same types of information and influence our perceptions and our behaviour in the same way as vocalisations do in non-human mammals where these vocalisations are, essentially, the primary form of communication and are a big factor in what determines animal’s access to resources, their reproductive success, and their chances of survival.

Georgia - But do humans, with our added luxury of verbal communications, still use roars in a similar way to our animal cousins? It was time to conduct an extremely loud study.

Jordan -  In my paper, what I did was I got actors in training to immerse themselves in a battle or war scenario and to produce aggressive roars along with aggressive speech. And, essentially, the aim of what we were looking to find out was: is it the case that human roars communicate information about formidability, so our strength and our size, things that dictate our fighting ability? And do roars communicate information about these things in the same way that the roars and roar-like vocalisations in other mammals do?

Georgia - Jordan got some actors to come along and roar - here’s a clip…

Roar.

Georgia - Or yell an aggressive phrase like this one:

That’s enough, I’m coming for you.

Georgia - Our poor participants then had to guess if the person was stronger or weaker than them, and if they were shorter or taller…

Jordan - We found that listeners were pretty accurate at judging someone’s strength and someone’s size relative to one’s own. So, for example, listeners incorrectly judged vocalisers who were stronger than themselves as weaker on 18 percent of trials. And when they were judging vocalisers who were much stronger than them, that figure dropped to 6 percent.

Georgia - So why would linking a roar to someone’s size and strength be useful? Well, in the animal kingdom, creatures use this all the time as it can help avoid getting into a fight you’re pretty certain to lose. So if you here this…roar... and you sound like this...meow... you can act smart and run away and live to fight another day.

This way, grudge matches can be settled without actually having to enter a fight which could be dangerous to everyone involved, but animals will always try and trick the system.

Jordan - For example, the red deer is able to lower its larynx - its voice box - all the way down to its sternum and elongate it’s vocal tract, which is part of the vocal apparatus that provides cues to body size. And in our study in humans, what we found is that when male vocalisers roar they are much more likely to be perceived as stronger and taller than when the produce aggressive speech even though, obviously, their strength and their height are the same across those two stimuli.

Georgia - So roaring exaggerates the perceived strength of an individual. Back in our evolutionary history this probably came in handy when we were trying to scare off rival lovers or steal other people’s mammoths. But is roaring useful to us now?

Jordan - We’ve all heard the roars in battle scenes in Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but humans don’t just roar in Hollywood films or TV dramas. Historical accounts have indicated that roars have been employed by soldiers in battle all the way throughout history from the Roman Army to the Red Army. And even now, the US National Parks Service recommends roaring as a defence strategy against bears, so it’s a useful weapon to have up your sleeve. I hope no-one ever needs to be in that situation where they have to defend themselves against a bear, but if you are in that situation then puff up your chest, make your arms wide, and definitely give as loud and as threatening a roar as you can.

Georgia - Can you do your best roar for me?

Jordan - I’ll give it a go. I’m a little bit under the weather but we’ll see what I can produce.

Roar!

Georgia - Ha ha. Amazing. I think you could definitely take me.

Jordan - We’ll see about that. Have you got one?

Georgia - Umm. Okay. I’ll move back so I don’t distort it.

Roar!

Jordan - I’m scared. I’m running away right now.

Georgia - I’ve never roared in an interview before so that’s a first.

Jordan - Well there you go - there’s a first time for everything.


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