“Any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary” – Mark Twain. Mark Twain’s famous words quoted above suggest that human emotions are expressed involuntarily, and that their expression is a universally inherent part of human nature. Whilst some psychologists maintain this, others propose that culture produces variations in the ways in which emotions are expressed throughout the world and that the “involuntary” nature of emotion is subject to cultural influence.
The definition given by Answers. com, which states that emotion is “a mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort, and is often accompanied by physiological changes”, supports Twain’s theory that humans cannot choose whether or not to express a particular emotion. However, this is not to say that culture is unable to influence these involuntary actions. It is this concept wherein lies the quandary for many psychologists.
Hereafter I aim to outline the evidence provided by psychological studies for the expression of emotion in terms of universality and cultural impact, and to ultimately determine how culture impacts on the ways in which emotions are expressed. The universal nature of the expression of emotion The idea that humans throughout the world express their emotions in the same way has a biological basis. In his 1872 classic works, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin put forward the idea that facial expressions of emotion are biologically innate and are a result of evolutionary adaptations.
These adaptations arise to ensure the survival of the species, and Darwin supports this theory with examples, one of which is that of the expression of disgust or rejection stemming from an organism’s attempt to rid itself of something unpleasant (Darwin, 1872). Furthermore, Darwin stated that emotions are not only expressed universally in humans, but also across species, such as in gorillas (Matsumoto ; Juang, 2004, pp. 227). In addition, expressions of emotion ensure the survival of the species by providing intra-psychic and social information to others about their wellbeing and their social and environmental relationships (Ibid, pp.227).
For example, a frightened look alerts others to the possible presence of danger and an angry look may allow an individual to anticipate an act of aggression (Atkinson et al. , 1996, pp. 390). More recently, psychologists have conducted studies that have provided evidence in support of the Darwinian theory that the expression of emotion is a universal phenomenon.
The most notable series of studies by Ekman, Friesen and Tomkins (1972), now referred to as the “universality studies” (Matsumoto ; Juang, 2004, pp.227) involved asking participants from five countries (the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Japan) to view a series of photographs, each of which portrayed a different expression of emotion. When asked to label each emotion (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise), observers across all five countries gave similar responses, proving that emotions could be universally recognized.
However, this initial study was criticised in that it only took into consideration literate and industrialized countries, which share forms of mass media such as television and magazines.
In this way, there is the possibility that the responses could have been learned. Therefore, a second study was carried out with two pre-literate tribes in New Guinea, who were asked to select a story that best described a facial expression rather than using words (Ibid, pp. 227). The results of this study were remarkably similar to those of the initial study, providing further evidence in support of the theory of universality of expressions of emotion.
Not only did the studies by Ekman, Friesen and Tomkins provide evidence for universality, they also identified a set of universal emotional expressions, which are highly specific: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. The combination of universality and specificity indicates that a neurological system may be responsible for producing such specific emotions, in that the human body is programmed to use a particular set of muscles in order to express particular emotions (Atkinson et al. , 1996, pp. 393). When an image is presented to an individual’s left visual field it projects to the right hemisphere and vice versa.
The neurological system that many psychologists believe is responsible for producing emotions is located in the right cerebral hemisphere. When an individual is shown a picture and asked to decide which of two emotions is displayed in the picture, they react faster and with a greater degree of accuracy when the picture is projected to their right hemisphere (Ibid, pp. 393). Although much of the evidence in support of universality has a biological basis, the study of language also provides elements of cross-cultural similarity with regards to the expression of emotion.
For example, a study by a Chinese psychologist who did a comparison of novels both from China and the West identified parallels in the ways in which emotions were portrayed in fiction from both regions. For example, many physiological reactions to emotion such as flushing, trembling and goose pimples were evident in both Chinese and Western writing (Ibid, pp. 392). The impact of culture on the expression of emotion Despite the fact that many psychologists have shown that ways of expressing emotions are universal in nature, many believe that the expression of emotion is dependent on an individual’s culture.