For the IgNobel prize in Psychology this year, we have Karl Teigen, a researcher in the Netherlands (EDIT: sorry, he's from Norway) who decided to ask the age old question:

(I can only assume that when this paper gets publicity, Teigen gets REALLY sick of this song)

"You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh..."

But IS a sigh just a sigh? Teigen doesn't think so.

Teigen, KH. "Is a sigh 'just a sigh'? Sighs as emotional signals and responses to a difficult task' Scandinavian journal of psychology, 2008.

Mr. S can always tell when I'm frustrated. I'll be doing my thing, and he'll point it out. Last time this happened, as I asked "how do you know?" He said "you're sighing a lot". And with me, it pretty clearly means I'm tired, or I'm bored, or I'm frustrated. But is this what a sigh really means? And how do we know?

A sigh is a characteristic way of breathing. Usually involving an emphasized inhalation or exhalation, and sometimes involving both, the sigh varies from person to person. Most people don't just sigh as a random part of breathing. It's usually got some emotion behind it, whether that's happiness or otherwise.

There's two ways that you can really think of a sigh. You can think of it in physiological terms, as a way of breathing. And then you can think of it in psychological terms, as what the sigh means, both to the person and to other people around them.

A sigh has been viewed psychologically as something which has no physical basis. It's not like you need the extra air. But psychology also thinks that sighs aren't really commmunicative either. After all, we do them when we're alone, and it's more of an expressive motion, an expression of how you're REALLY feeling.

But what DOES the sigh mean? What are you really feeling? What do other people think it means, and what purpose does it serve, both to you, and as a communication to people around you?

To address this Teigen did three studies.

1) He asked a group of students what words they associated with sighing, what emotional states. In general, it seems that people (or at least psychology undergrads) think that a sigh indicates a negative mood, something passive, something subdued. But sighs are generally NOT seen as BAD or unpleasant. So it seems that sighing is for something that's negative, but not all that threatening or intense at the moment (though I'm not so sure about that one). The participants predicted that people would sigh as a result of frustration, disappointment, defeat, boredom, longing, irritation, and of course there's the sigh of relief, and the oft hear sighs of love. But overall, most emotions that accompany a sigh are thought of as negative. Most of the students said that they sighed alone about as often as they sighed in company, which Teigen interprets as meaning that sighs are not meant for communication (comparing it to laughter and throat clearing which we mostly do in the presence of others). I don't really know about that one, as I clear my throat alone AND in company, not to mention laughing and sighing. More on that later.

2) The second part of the study set out to answer the question of sighing as a form of communication. How people perceive other people sighing as opposed to sighing themselves. In this case, Teigen asked the participants in the study to look at four scenarios:

(1) Cafeteria: Imagine that you and some other students are sitting in the cafeteria. Someone in the group sighs.

(2) Bench: Imagine that you are sitting on a bench in the park. Another person is also sitting on this bench. He/she sighs.

(3) Letter: Imagine that you observe a person who just has opened a letter and is now reading it. He/she sighs.

(4) Telephone: Imagine that you are on the phone talking to a friend. In the course of the conversation you hear him/her sigh.

I think it's really too bad that they didn't maybe show videos of people sighing, but I think Teigen probably wanted to give as little emotional context as possible. In all cases the participants thought the people were sighing out of negative emotions about 10 times as often as they thought about positive ones. But the social context of each situation changed the specific emotion associated with the sigh. In public, sighs were perceived as expressing frustration or irritation, while if someone sighed in private, it was viewed as expressive of sadness. Finally, Teigen asked for a comparison of YOU sighing vs you seeing someone ELSE sigh. Here he got some different answers. Apparently, when other people sigh we view it as an expression of sadness, whereas when we sigh, we tend to view it more as an expression of frustration.

So from this it looks like sighs have a communicative value to other people of expressing moderate negative feelings.

And finally, we get to #3. Eliciting sighs.

3) The idea is this: if people tend to sigh most often in exasperation, it should be easy to MAKE them sigh by giving them something really frustrating to do, like difficult puzzle games. So Teigen took a bunch of psychology students, put them in a room, and gave them two frustrating, unrewarding pen and pencil games.

And boy did he get sighs. 77% of the people given the task sighed, with an average of about 4 sighs per person (amusingly, one guy SAID "sigh" without actually sighing, and a whole bunch of them skipped sighing and went directly to cussing). The majority of the sighs occurred in the breaks between fruitless attempts at solving the puzzles. When asked how they felt, the vast majority expressed frustration.

So what can we conclude from this? It seems that sighing can be used to indicate a negative feeling, often a sense of frustration or resignation, and the Teigen feels that the resignation is the really important point here. But it also seems that sighs are interpreted differently, depending on who sighs and who observes the action. And it seems to me that this leaves more questions than it answers. Sure, humans may sigh out of frustration, but what about other species? What causes...this?!

SCIENCE! There's always another question around the corner.

PLEASE NOTE: I edited this post on 10/2/11 to include correct information from the author about the games used, his location, and their interpretation of their findings. In addition, Dr. Teigen wished to emphasize to me that the real thought behind this study was to show his students at the time that some areas of psychology are relatively uninvestigated. I think it was probably a great way to get those students interested in research!

Finally, Teigen wished to note that:

I did it with a group of students to show them that there are themes in psychology that have not been properly investigated. At the time we did the study we did not find a single empirical or experimental study of sigh with healthy human subjects.

Since then, the picture has changed, particularly due to a group of Belgian scientists (Vlemincx et al.) who recently have done several studies the psychophysiology of sighs with people doing stressful or attention-demanding cognitive tasks. Their conclusion is that sighing is a way of resetting (normalizing) the breathing process, after irregular breathing during stress. So they think we feel better by sighing, and I agree. Also our formula of resignation an giving up something implies that realities have to be accepted, and one can starts moving forward after that

I think this is really interesting and a good link between changes in breathing during stress, and a behavior that can also be used for communication. And thanks to Dr. Teigen for providing permission to publish his comments.