Saturday, June 13, 2015

Psychology of Emotions: The Implications of Universality and Variability

Psychology of Emotions: The Implications of Universality and Variability
Maria K. Almoite


The James-Lange Theory of Emotions (1895) suggests that emotions are physiological responses or bodily reverberations to stimuli on our worlds, while our autonomic nervous system creates physiological events (e.g. changes in our heart rate, breathing, pupil dilation, tear secretion, stomach contractions, and blood flow to our skin). Thus, emotions are perhaps the “feelings” which come about as a result of physiological changes rather than being the cause.

Others opposed to the James-Lange Theory – claiming that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its components (e.g. sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems) were too simplistic to provide the complexity inherent in the wide array of emotions we feel. Researchers have proposed a new theory suggesting that our physiology and cognition create emotions—according to Schachter and Singer’s (1962) “Two Factor Theory of Emotions” the physiological responses are the same for each emotion, but differ in how we cognitively label the arousal which determines the specific emotions we experience.

These theories imply very different origins of our emotions, and these theories make different predictions regarding whether emotional experience is universal or culturally variable. If the assumptions of The James-Lange Theory are correct (i.e. the assumption that emotions are largely based on the particular and specific physiological reactions that humans have to various events) then this suggest that human emotions may arise from evolutionary origins. Hence, The James-Lange Theory suggests that people in all cultures should have the same emotional experiences. Conversely, if the two-factor theory of emotions is correct (i.e. those emotions are our interpretations of our physiological signal) – this suggests that in addition to a physiological basis, our emotions are grounded in the belief systems that shape our interpretations. Theories that focus on the centrality of interpretation in emotions (e.g. the two-factor theory, etc.) make the case for cultural variability in emotional experiences.

Research on facial expressions reveals much consistency around the world in the ways that people recognize six basic emotions: fear, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust. These basic emotions are not the byproduct of cultural learning, but rather reflect universal psychological reactions. Notwithstanding, some aspects of human expression of emotion is shaped by cultural learning. Facial expressions serve an important communicative function, however people do not show all the emotions they are experiencing on their faces. Generally, people’s face conveys far more expressions when they are communicating with others. Research shows that cultures vary in the display rules that shape how emotions are expressed. Display rules guide both the intensity through which emotions are expressed and the ways they are expressed. Some cultures communicate their emotions more directly, whereas others express them in a more moderate form.

           According to Russell (1991) when it comes to exploring how different cultures describe their emotional experiences we see tremendous cultural variation. For instance, English speakers are particularly well equipped to describe the most subtle of variations in their emotional experience because the English language has over 2,000 different emotion descriptors. Conversely, other populations (e.g. Chewong of Malaysia) have only eight emotion words, and only three of these fit with Ekman’s basic emotions (e.g. anger, fear, and shame).

The field of culture and emotions has experienced considerable debate regarding the role of culture in shaping emotions. The controversy grows based on the different conceptions of researchers’ emotions. Indeed, there is solid evidence for universality in emotions around the world when it comes to facial expressions. Generally, humans are universally adept at producing and recognizing facial expressions associated with the basic emotions, but aspects of emotional experience contain much more cultural variation. The results of these studies have supported the implication that experience varies more across cultures than do people’s facial expressions for basic emotions.

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