Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Cultural differences in emotion

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Cultural differences in emotion:
How does culture influence emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Culture is an integral aspect to an individual’s life. It forms a basic guideline about the ways in which we should behave, act and interpret specific situations. Just as culture is an integral aspect to one’s life, emotion is also a fundamental aspect to an individual. Culture and emotion are important topics as there are many distinguishable differences in the way specific cultures choose to show emotion, which can potentially help others to understand and accept these cultural differences. Each culture has different worldviews, ideologies, values and concepts of individualism which directly impact on emotional output and regulation. Both cultural and personal ideologies are important in assessing a person’s behaviour as they act as a guideline in the correct way to respond and evaluate an emotional eliciting situation.

Defining emotion[edit | edit source]

Paul Ekman was among the first psychologists to conduct research on emotions in 1972. He found that there are six basic emotions which are universally recognised across different cultures and these are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. He expanded this list to include other emotions such as embarrassment, shame, pride, contempt, satisfaction, amusement and excitement.

Figure 1: Happiness is a universally recognised emotion

Emotion can be defined as a short lived, psychological state which involves subjective experience, a physiological response and a behavioural or expressive response (Macionis & Plummer, p155). The combination of these three elements allow for an individual to determine the correct way to react to certain, emotion eliciting situations.

  • Subjective experience: The ways in which we interpret an emotional eliciting event will be a personal choice and won’t necessarily evoke the same emotions in another person.
  • Physiological response: The physical reactions in which occur as a response to a particular emotion, such as increase in heart rate, sweat and levels of breathing.
  • Expressive response: The way in which we choose to express our emotions as a result of the emotional stimulating event, such as a smile.

Emotion is an aspect of behaviour which everyone experiences throughout the day, every day and varies in degrees of seriousness. It plays an important part in social interaction as well as personality development. They are particularly crucial to social functions as they inform others of the individual’s internal states and intentions as well as providing incentives for other individual’s behaviours.

Why is culture important?[edit | edit source]

"Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any itger capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tyler, cited in Ogburn, 1937, p161). This definition is one of many to attempt to define culture. Culture in itself is a broad topic and has many different meanings to many different individuals. Sociologists refer to culture as the "designs for living" (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, p169) as culture is believed to be important for human survival.

There are five major components of culture which are suggested by Macionis & Plummer (2012) to be important to consider. These are symbols, languages, values and beliefs, norms and material culture.

Item Component Description
1 Symbols Something which has a meaning attached to it and this is recognized by people in the same cultural group. Symbols assist people to make sense of their lives. An example of a cultural symbol is a fur coat; some societies see owning a fur coat as a prized possession but others may find this to be inhumane treatment of animals.
2 Languages Languages are referred to as a combination of symbols which allow for the communication between members of a society. Chinese, English and Spanish are the most popular languages used in today's society. Language can be culture specific and is demonstrated through speech and written communication.
3 Values and Beliefs Values are referred to as standards that people have which constitutes what they believe to be right or wrong. These differ greatly from culture to culture. Beliefs are those values which people determine to be true. Both values and beliefs form the core for the daily functions of cultural groups and are learned from families, schools and religious organizations. Asian cultures, for example, have specific values which they believe are detrimental to functioning in society including belief in strong families, hard work and the virtue of saving.
4 Norms Norms are rules set out by a society to guide the behaviors of individuals in that society.
5 Material Culture Many cultures have specific, tangible human creations which reflect on how the culture behaves and acts on a daily basis. Chinese people use chopsticks to eat for example.

Table 1. Five components of culture.

How does culture influence emotion?[edit | edit source]

There has been much research which has aimed to identify the differences in emotion when comparing them across many cultures. The main differences which have been recognised as significant (Lewis, Koyasu, Oh, Ogawa, Short & Huang, 2009) are listed:

  • Cultures categorize emotions differently: Some cultures categorize emotions differently where some labels are language specific and do not have a title in other languages. Some examples of this include the German word “schadenfreude”, known as the pleasure which is brought on by another person’s displeasure, and this does not have a word in the English language.
  • Prioritisation of emotions: There are differences across cultures in the emotions which are considered to be their primary emotions.
  • Emotional reactions: The same emotion evoking situation in one culture is likely to evoke a different emotional response in other cultures.
  • Differences in nonverbal expressions: Nonverbal expressions of emotions differ in meaning across cultures in accordance to their cultural display rules. Display rules are norms which govern and guide the way people belonging to a particular culture decide which emotions are necessary and which emotions should be physically displayed.
  • Cultural norms: These are used to determine when and how to show emotions in which are not actually felt.

Mesquita (2001) distinguishes between two types of emotions in relation to cultural habits including emotional practices and the potential for emotions. Emotional practices refer to the emotions which individual’s commonly experience and choose to express and the potential for emotions are the principle emotions which individuals are capable of having. Most research has investigated the importance of culture and it’s affect on the potential for emotions, with some research identifying the potential for various cultures to recognise several facial expressions in similar ways.

Cultural models[edit | edit source]

Culture and emotion remains to be[Rewrite to improve clarity] an interesting and well researched topic as many studies have shown and identified distinguishable differences in the prevalence, patterns and specific contexts of emotional outputs across cultures (Mesquita, 2001). Mesquita and Walker (2002) interpret these differences in emotional outputs as a result of cultural models. Cultural Models are the social practices, values and beliefs which provide a guideline for individuals of a specific culture towards what is considered moral, imperative and desirable behaviours (Mesquita & Walker, 2002). These models have been used to explain the cultural differences in emotion between American culture and Japanese culture. Individualistic cultures, such as America, have cultural models which emphasize personal success as a result of the individual’s effort whereas collectivist cultures such as Japan have cultural models which underlines and pinpoints the proper fit for that individual in their social environment.

Figure 2: Becoming a Buddhist Monk is believed to be an honorable service in some cultural beliefs

The behaviours and emotional expressions which are consistent with the cultural model tend to occur more frequently and those which are not consistent with the cultural model tend to occur on a less frequent basis. Cultures which emphasize honour have also been shown to express less happiness as this does not necessarily reflect on the cultural model. Honour cultures create events to typically derive meaning to their cultural model of their relevance to honour which in turn produces emotions. The importance of honour for these cultures is particularly important to the emotional reactions of becoming dishonourable. The perceptions of potential honour violations and honour violations are copious and are tied with certain categories of emotions, such as shame, hate and anger[factual?].

Cultural differences in emotions and emotional expression are said to be a direct result of antecedent events (Mesquita & Walker, 2002).

  • Antecedent events

An antecedent event refers to those events which trigger an emotion. Some emotions may be brought on due to a large number of conditions which evoke the certain emotional response and others may occur rarely due to the minimal occurrence of a particular emotion’s elicitors. Most cultures will tend to produce and create contexts and events which promote the culturally desired behaviours. For example, in American culture, it is important to promote and maintain happiness as this is a culturally desired emotion. This is achieved by giving and receiving praise and compliments, rewards are also given to congratulate accomplishments. Happiness is also promoted in the American culture by attempting to avoid negativity, inattentiveness and harsh criticism. On the other hand, Malaysian culture will create events which attempt to avoid situations which promote anger in an in-group context. This is achieved by avoiding both frustrating and insulting members of the in-group and the final goal is to reduce the experience of improper emotions[factual?].

Emotion regulation[edit | edit source]

Culture plays a significant part in the ways in which emotions are used, regulated and maintained. Each culture has certain ways in which they choose to show emotion, and there are cultural differences in coping mechanisms as well as emotion regulation. As cultures aim to maintain social order, there are rules, guidelines and norms which are created to determine the emotional regulation of a specific culture (Matsumoto, 2006). These are put in place because emotion is recognised as an important motivator for behaviours and are related to proper social functions. The norms which are created for emotion regulation are created to serve the purpose of maintaining social order within specific cultures. Emotion regulation refers to the psychological processes which helps a person to determine how, why and when a specific emotion should be used and shown (Matsumo, Nakagawa & Yoo, 2008). It has been found to directly relate to sympathy, prosocial behaviour as well as morally relevant behaviour and social competence. During this process, emotion regulation may also depend on the way in which particular cultures form, maintain and value their social relationships and these differences help to create a guideline for the regulation of expressive behaviours. Culture also plays an important role in the formation of personality and emotion regulation as they both interact with respect to the influence of the culture.

Collectivist and individualistic cultures[edit | edit source]

Figure 3: Traditional Chinese Dance

There are two main identified types of cultures; collectivist culture and individualistic culture (Russell, 1991). These are also referred to as value orientated cultures. Value orientated cultures include four attributes which differ immensely in both cultures including interpretations of the self, goals, relationship and determinants of behaviour (Triandis, 1995, sited in Matsumoto, Yoo & Nakagawa, 2008). Emotion is said to be directly associated to the four attributes of the cultures and differ greatly according to the two.

Collectivist cultures are those in which have a main focus of the goals of the group rather than on the wishes and desires of the individual (Matsumoto, 2006). Korea, India and China are examples of those who live as a collectivist culture. Collectivist cultures have ideologies which emphasize certain values which they deem to be important, such as conformity, in-group harmony and obedience. The main objective for collectivist cultures is to promote both the social obligations and responsibilities of maintaining group harmony. These ideologies regulate emotions so that they do not threaten or harm the valued in-group harmony but instead act as a guideline in expressing emotions in a way that helps to maintain harmony, unity and selflessness.

Individualistic cultures are those which have a main focus on the needs and desires of the self (Matsumoto, 2006). People who belong to this type of culture value self-reliance, individual achievement and goal directed behaviours. The key motives of an individualistic culture are to emphasize standing out and accomplishment. Autonomy, confrontation and emotional independence are also emphasized in the individualistic culture. America and Australia are examples of those who live by an individualistic culture. Emotions are regulated for the benefit of the particular individual without much consideration of the in-group.

In individualistic cultures, both attitudes and emotions are seemingly more important for motivators of certain behaviors whereas collectivist cultures believe that their cultural norms are typically more important. Many studies have distinguished three main differences across cultures in the processes relating to emotion regulation which are emotion-related appraisals, coping which is linked to reappraisal and display rules which are connected with suppression (Butler, Lee & Gross, 2007).

  • Suppression is referred to as the inhibiting of expressing emotion behaviours. Emotional expressions are regulated by controlling and limiting emotional behaviour.
  • Reappraisal refers to the way that individuals interpret emotion-eliciting situations to attempt to change the impact it has on the emotional experience. Emotional experiences are regulating by re-evaluating and changing the thoughts brought on by the emotion-eliciting event.

Cultural differences of emotional suppression[edit | edit source]

Suppression has been shown to impact negatively on the individual’s social closeness and support. Reappraisal was also shown to be associated with sharing of emotions, better social support and the ability to form close relationships. Cultures in which have high reappraisal values and low suppression experience more positive emotions, less negative emotions, are more likely to share their emotions with others, are socially supportive and have lower scores on depression and aim to maintain high scores of happiness and life satisfaction. Suppression is said to be directly linked with reappraisal in cultures that emphasise a greater need to maintain social order. Suppression is likely to occur in cultures who have higher values of power distance, hierarchy and uncertainty avoidance. Individualistic cultures are likely to have low levels of suppression and reappraisal (Mesquita & Walker, 2003).

Figure 4: Worship is a daily cultural practice in many cultures

Emotional suppression can be referred to as inhibiting social expressions as they might be directly linked to negative social consequences (Butler, Lee & Gross, 2007). It is when a person intentionally prohibits themselves from expressing emotions when experiencing an emotional stimulating event. In most cases, suppression has been associated with poor social outcomes. Studies in which have examined the outcomes of emotional expression in day-to-day life have consistently found that it has been linked to attachment avoidance, reduced sharing of emotions and low levels of social support. Research has also found that the frequency and use of emotional suppression have cultural differences. Some research which has focused on culture and emotional suppression have found that some collectivist cultures, such as the Asian culture, use emotional suppression more frequently than Western European cultures as a means to fulfil a wide range of social functions and is not typically associated with negative outcomes.

Emotional suppression differs according to cultural values. Each culture follows cultural practices which directly impact on cultural values and these are routinely reinforced in daily life. Western European Countries have values which encourage self-assertion and independence and are more likely to be open to emotional expression in most situations and are likely to engage in suppression in situations which require self-protective acts (Butler, Lee & Gross, 2007). In studies which have examined cultural differences in emotional suppression, European Americans have been found to use suppression as a means for asserting ones will and self protection. In Asian cultures, suppression is mainly used to avoid emotionally harming another individual and can be used as a means to maintain social relationships. Similar to emotion suppression, masking has also been more prevalent in some cultures. Masking refers to the apparent difference between both inner feelings and outward expressions and has been more evident in Asian Americans compared to Caucasian Americans.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Culture is an important aspect in an individual's life. Through symbols, norms, values and beliefs, languages and material culture, cultures are formed to regulate the way a person behaves and provides a framework for what is considered right and wrong. There are many cultural differences in emotional output and expression, which are important to help understand a culture's way of life. Both Individualistic cultures and Collectivist cultures differ greatly in terms of key emotions and emotion regulation. There is also evidence that suppression has different effects on certain cultures, with some aiming to avoid it while other cultural groups use it as an advantage. As society continues to grow, it is important to recognise these differences and to prepare for change because culture is forever changing.

Quiz[edit | edit source]


1 Culture incorporates five important topics, which are?

Symbols, Norms, Spirituality, Languages and Suppression
Symbols, Norms, Values & Beliefs, Languages and Material Culture

2 Are there cultural differences in emotional outputs?


3 Suppression is mostly used as an advantage in what type of cultural group?


4 Emotion regulation relates to?

Antisocial behaviour, avoidance, high achieving behaviour and social status
Prosocial behaviour, sympathy, morally relevant behaviour and social competence

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Butler, E. A., Lee, L. T., & Gross, J.J. (2007). Are the social consequences of emotion suppression culture-specific? Emotion, (7)1, 30-48.

Macionis, J.J., & Plummer, K. (2012). Sociology: A Global Introduction (5th ed.). England: Pearson Education Limited.

Markus, R. H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion and motivation. Psychological Review, (98)2, 224-253.

Matsumoto, D., Nakagawa, S., & Yoo, H. S. (2008). Culture, emotion regulation and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (94)6, 925-937.

Matsumoto, D. (2006). Are cultural differences in emotion regulation mediated by personality tests? Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology,(37)4, 421-437.

Mesquita, B. (2001). Emotions in collectivist and individualistic contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (80)1, 68-74.

Mesquita, B., & Walter, R.(2002). Cultural differences in emotion: a context for interpreting emotional experiences. Behaviour Research and Therapy, (41), 777-793.

Ogburn, W. F. (1937). Social Forces. England: Oxford University Press.

Russell, J. A. (1991). Culture and the categorization of emotions. Psychological Bulletin, (110)3, 426-450.