What if emotions aren’t universal but specific to each culture?

By | October 10, 2021

Elitsa Dermendzhiyska writes:

The first time I saw Pixar’s movie Inside Out (2015), I was too entranced by its craftsmanship to realise that there was something odd, almost eerie, about its human characters. I was charmed by little Riley, the protagonist, with the chattering critters prancing around in her head. There’s Joy, a feisty version of Tinker Bell with cropped blue hair and indomitable optimism; Anger, a flaming-red stump with eyes like slits and fire bursting from his head; Sadness, a bespectacled blob; Fear, lanky and purple, with a bow tie and bushy eyebrows; and, finally, Disgust – green and chic, her long eyelashes fanning out of her face like miniature broomsticks.

From a control room in Riley’s mind, her personified emotions operate a switchboard with buttons and levers that cause the girl to smile, sulk or cry, or jolt her body into action – now it hugs, now it slumps, stomps, slams doors. It’s the kind of movie you’d expect Pixar to make – first-rate drama laced with wry humour and adorable characters. But with every prop made to tug your heartstrings, you’re bound to miss something: that behind her big and lovely eyes, little Riley is an automaton, a puppet pushed around by her emotions.

Were it mere make-believe, I wouldn’t quibble with the movie. But its fantastical veneer aside, Inside Out promotes a view that’s dominated psychology for more than 50 years: the idea that certain emotions are universal, innate and hardwired into our brains. Everyone, everywhere, apparently knows joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. We all think we can recognise these emotions in the faces of loved ones and strangers, friends and foes. The Basic Emotion Theory, as it is known, is not only taught at universities, it has trickled down into pop psychology books and radio shows and cocktail parties, pervading public consciousness as an incontrovertible fact. For a long time, few questioned it, and those who did were mocked at research gatherings or rejected by science journals.

The Basic Emotion Theory – also called the Universality Thesis by some of its critics – goes back to the 1960s, when the US psychologist Paul Ekman (who consulted on Inside Out) conducted studies with the Fore, an Indigenous society in Papua New Guinea. Ekman showed that the Fore could match photographs of faces with the emotional expressions they depicted – happy, sad, angry, disgusted, afraid or surprised – with a fairly high degree of correctness. Because his subjects had had little exposure to Western culture, Ekman claimed he’d found conclusive evidence for the existence of six basic, evolved, universally shared emotions. Each emotion, furthermore, came with a distinct, brain-bound affect programme. Triggered by an external stimulus, this underlying neural mechanism would set off a cascade of prebuilt responses, including physiological changes, facial expressions, behaviour tendencies and the subjective states we commonly call feelings.

The Universality Thesis appeals to our intuition that, somewhere deep down, we are all the same. Culture adds colour but, in small unguarded moments, our shared humanity leaks out: sadness wells up in the eyes, joy crinkles the lips. Over the past two decades, however, this view has come under attack from a small but growing group of iconoclast researchers. They argue that emotions are not hardwired responses that lurk in our brains (or guts, for that matter) waiting to be switched on by threats or opportunities. Instead, these researchers see emotions as emergent, highly situated ways of organising experience: exquisite acts of meaning-making, shaped by the complex interplay of nature and nurture. In this provocative new telling – let’s call it the Diversity Thesis – what we feel, how we feel it – perhaps even whether we feel it at all – depends not just on biology but also on context, including the language we use and the culture we come from. [Continue reading…]

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