Karen Sears

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Legacy Department

Department of Psychology


Past research has investigated both cry perception and cry acoustics to determine whether cries elicited by differing stimuli can be distinguished by adults and whether caregiving experience affects this ability. Although these questions have been studied since the 1920s, a state of controversy still exists. More recently, Wolff (1969) and Murray (1979) have proposed that cries elicited by hunger and pain are not discrete cry types, but rather, are two different levels of one single, graded signal. According to Wolff, a cry’s causal stimulus can be identified only during the initial wails, after which the cry settles into a basic pattern. The present study tested the distinct cry type and single graded signal theories in a two-part experiment. In Part 1, 16 mothers and 16 non-mothers were placed in a simulated babysitting situation in which they were asked to “babysit” an infant manikin. Subjects were exposed to either a hunger or a pain cry. The measures were latency to first response to cry, latency to appropriate response, latency to feed, latency to undress/check diaper, and latency to remove pin. Part 2 required these same subjects to listen to a tape of 16 pain and hunger cries extracted during the first minute of crying (early cries) as well as the third minute of crying (late cries). Little support was found for the distinct cry type theory. All subjects had trouble distinguishing cries elicited by pain from those elicited by hunger and reacting appropriately toward them. The results indicated that the single graded theory is a more plausible idea. Subjects easily identified the early cries of Part 2, but failed to do as well at identifying late cries, implying that all cries do settle into a basic pattern after the initial wails. Caregiving experience seemed to be a slight advantage in Part 2’s cry recognition task.


Includes bibliographical references.


45 pages




Northern Illinois University

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