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Description: If you have taken an introductory Psychology course you have certainly seen some version of the picture below showing facial expressions of emotion and you likely saw the picture in the context of a part of a lecture on the universality (across cultures) of basic human emotions such as those showing on the faces of the people in the picture. The work of Paul Ekman and the early speculation by Darwin about the universality of basic human emotions and their clear expression facially and how this is likely a part of how we get along socially, and survive, in groups or tribes is a generally understood part of basic Psychology. But, is it true? Think about this. While there may be a certain universality regarding how human faces work and how facial expressions are tied to basic emotional processing centers is it the case that people is diverse cultural or linguistic communities all experience, think about or reflect upon emotions in the same ways? We ARE open to the idea that there is some cultural variation in emotional expressiveness – think about stereotypes of dour Scottish people, reserved German people, exuberant Italians etc. But consider this question: Do we know with any empirical certainty that people from distinct linguistic/cultural communities actually experience, think about or reflect upon basic emotions in the same ways? Is grief the same across cultures? What about happy or regret? And, how would you dig into this question from a research perspective? Once you have your hypotheses and methodological strategies in order reads through the article linked below to see how one group of researchers addressed this topic.

Source: The meaning of emotions may differ around the world, ScienceDaily.

Date: December 19, 2019

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So, what did you think of colexification as a research tool? Gaining insight into how a linguistically homogeneous group thinks about a feeling by looking at what their language suggests they see it as being similar to or distinct from is, I think, a brilliant research strategy. Going further to show that the observed emotional interpretive patterns are tied to geography as opposed just to language is also very interesting, suggesting that, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are tied to direct social interaction. This research does not directly challenge the Ekman research on the universality of human facial expression of emotion (and it points to areas of structural universality) but it DOES suggest that we need to remember that there is much more to our experiences of and reflections upon emotions reflected in our cultural/linguistic habits.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What does it mean to say that certain basic emotions are expressed on the human face in universally recognizable ways?
  2. What might be some of the ways that our thoughts/reflections about emotions might challenge the universality claims reflected in the previous question?
  3. Given the previous two question, what is and what is not universal about human emotions and what additional research should we consider doing to sort these questions out?

References (Read Further):

Jackson, J. C., Watts, J., Henry, T. R., List, J. M., Forkel, R., Mucha, P. J., … & Lindquist, K. A. (2019). Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure. Science, 366(6472), 1517-1522.

Majid, A. (2019). Mapping words reveals emotional diversity. Science, 366(6472), 1444-1445.

Mesquita, B., & Frijda, N. H. (1992). Cultural variations in emotions: a review. Psychological bulletin, 112(2), 179.

Mesquita, B., Boiger, M., & De Leersnyder, J. (2016). The cultural construction of emotions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 31-36.

Grossmann, I., Huynh, A. C., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2016). Emotional complexity: Clarifying definitions and cultural correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(6), 895.

Mesquita, B., Boiger, M., & De Leersnyder, J. (2017). Doing emotions: The role of culture in everyday emotions. European Review of Social Psychology, 28(1), 95-133.