In the history of emotion research, the pendulum has swung repeatedly between universalist
and social constructionist positions on emotions (Kitayama, last edition of the
Encyclopedia). Universalist approaches emphasized the evolutionary origin of emotions and
considered them as biologically given and invariant. In contrast, social constructionist
approaches emphasized nurture, focusing on the cultural processes shaping emotions, and
assuming that emotions were cross-culturally different. Variability in the phenomena was thus
taken to be informative about the constitutive processes: The degree of variability of emotion
was conflated with their origin.
More recently, the recognition that culture itself is perhaps the greatest evolutionary
advantage of all for the human species has shed a different light on the nature-nurture
debate. Plasticity –or cross-cultural variability– of emotions in ways that fit, and are adaptive
to, the cultural context, may itself be an evolutionary advantage. Most scientists would agree
that human beings have some universal potential for emotions, but also that, across cultures,
emotions are configured in very different, and uniquely adaptive, ways. The questions driving
research on culture and emotion have become more nuanced, and focus on the ways the
building blocks of emotional life are configured in culture-specific ways.
In the next section, we first define the main concepts: culture and emotion. A summary of
research on the universality of emotions will follow. The remainder of this review will focus
on research that systematically approaches cultural differences in emotions.
2. Culture and Emotion: Definitions
Culture is the human-made part of our environment. It forms our reality and provides the
goals, norms, and values that guide our behavior. Culture is not just a varnished layer of
meaning onto a core of reality, but rather it shapes reality itself; it includes the ways in which
our daily lives are structured, in particular the habitual and normative ways of being, and
having interactions and relationships. Culture importantly defines the context of adaptation
for each and every individual.
The meanings and practices of self and relationships, or ‘cultural models’ vary widely
between cultures, as illustrated by the contrast between European American and East Asian
cultural models. According to middle-class European American models of self and relating, an
individual should be both independent and autonomous. In order to achieve these goals, self-esteem and individual control are important conditions to the American way of independence,
as they afford individuals to influence (others in) the world to achieve what is best for
themselves. In contrast, the dominant goals of the self in most East Asian cultural contexts
are interdependence, relatedness, and harmony, which can be achieved by adjusting to others.
In Japan, adjustment is thought to be facilitated by self-criticism, because this leads the way to
Cultural models do not only exist in the head of individuals but also “in the world.” The
The American practice of complimenting and rewarding each other for every level of achievement
is an example, and so are the politeness rules and the sessions of critical self-reflection in
Japan. Therefore, cultural models invariantly define an individual’s context of adaptation,
even if not every individual engages in these models in exactly the same way.
Emotions are first, and foremost, as intentions to act (e.g., Frijda, 2007). Emotions are
not just subjective feelings, but having an emotion also means a commitment to act. To take
anger as an example: The experience of anger implies an attitude of non-acceptance, and the
assessment that others will, or at the very least should accommodate to your wishes, goals,
and values. Emotions thus serve important functions in relationships; according to some, the
adaptive advantage of emotions is precise in that they help to coordinate and regulate
relationships (e.g., Keltner & Haidt, 1999). Moreover, emotions communicate these
intentions to act to others: Anger communicates that the person is not likely to accept the
current state of affairs.
If emotions are commitments to act, it can be seen why they have cultural meaning.
Some acts are consistent with the cultural models of self and relationships, whereas others are
inconsistent. The philosopher Robert Solomon tried to explain why anger might be so much
rarer among the Utku, a group of Inuit living in Arctic Canada, than in America
(2002, p. 139): Anger “is as basic to American culture as an emotion can be” because it fits
with the notion of entitlement and control. On the other hand, anger is quite absent in the lives
of the Utku Inuits, because it is incompatible with their ‘rational’ worldview and includes
unjustifiable judgments and structures. As a result, anger plays no socially acceptable role in
their society (Solomon, 2002).
3. In pursuit of universal building blocks: The emotion potential
Much of the psychological research on culture and emotion focuses on the potential of
emotions: that is, the human capacity to have certain emotions. This research is less
concerned with the actual emotions people in different countries have, the so-called emotion
practice, than with people’s ability for these emotions. In the next section, we will discuss two
schools of thought on the emotional potential that both have inspired the research on culture and
3.1. Universal emotions
One school of thought that has inspired much of the psychological research on culture and
emotions assumes that certain emotions, so-called “basic emotions,” are universal building
blocks of emotional life (e.g., Ekman, 1992). The underlying idea is that basic emotions have
evolved for their adaptive value in dealing with fundamental life tasks: Emotions prepare for
actions that were particularly useful for recurrent life tasks in our evolutionary past. For
instance, anger protects us from exploitation. Most basic emotion theories also assume that
each basic emotion (a) corresponds to one particular adaptive value, and (b) is characterized
by its own set of unique features (antecedent events, facial and vocal expressions,
Cross-cultural research designed to prove the universality of basic emotions relied on
the observable features characteristic of the basic emotions: Facial and vocal expressions, and
physiological response patterns.
3.1.1. Universal emotions? Evidence from studies on expressive behavior
Paul Ekman’s research on facial recognition of emotions is a showcase example of the
paradigm most commonly used (e.g., Ekman & Friesen, 1969). Ekman and colleagues showed
pictures of faces to participants from a large range of different cultures (among them illiterate,
remote cultures), and asked them to identify the emotion in the face by choosing one emotion
out of a list. Even people from very different, non-Western cultures were able to correctly
identify a number of emotions above chance. This was seen as proof of the universality of
basic emotions. Similar studies have been reported for vocal expression, and yield comparable
results (e.g., Sauter, Eisner, Ekman, & Scott, 2010).
To be fair, basic emotion theorists did not deny differences in the practice of emotional
expression. In fact, basic emotion theorists postulated the notion of ‘display rules’ to account
for these differences. Display rules are the “cultural norms that dictate the management and
modification of emotional displays depending on social circumstances” (Ekman & Friesen,
1969). Display rules have been found to differ across cultures. For instance, Matsumoto and
colleagues (2008) asked participants from 32 different countries what they should do if they
felt each of seven emotions (anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise)
on a scale ranging from emotional expression to non-expression or masking (i.e., hide emotion
with a smile). The strongest differences in display rules were found for high activation positive
emotions, with the level of individualism of a country predicting the extent to which it was
considered good to express positive emotions. (In section 4.1 we will return to the finding that
individualist cultures seem to value high-activation positive emotions more than collectivist
cultures). There is little research linking display rules to actual expression. Display rules are
expected to influence expressive practices, but not the recognition of emotion.
Facial and vocal recognition studies, though designed to find universality, also yielded
important and persistent cultural differences in emotions. Granted, people across cultures
identified certain facial and vocal expressions above chance, but percentages of correct
identification largely varied (ranging from about 20 to 95%), depending on both the culture
and the emotion considered. Moreover, a systematic in-group advantage occurred, meaning
that facial expressions were always best recognized by people from the same culture (for a
meta-analysis see Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002). Recognition of facial expressions was also
improved for perceivers who had been exposed to the culture of the sender, or whose culture
was similar to the sender’s culture.
The notion of a biological hard-wired “language of emotions”, in the form of universal
facial and vocal expressions, has itself been challenged. In a series of ingenious experiments,
Rachel Jack and her colleagues compared the mental representations of facial expressions of
six basic emotions (the same six that were included in the studies by Paul Ekman and
colleagues) with a technique called ‘reverse correlation.’ This technique starts from greyscale pictures of race-, gender-, and emotion-neutral faces that are covered with a random
pattern of black and white dots (white noise). In each trial, one pixel is varied, after which
participants choose one emotion out of the six basic emotions identified by Ekman and
colleagues; they also have the option to answer ‘I don’t know. By aggregating the facial
stimuli of all trials that are classified as a certain emotion, the researchers established the
mental representation of facial expressions associated with the emotion. In research
comparing Western European and East Asian samples, Jack found the representations of facial
expressions to be different: the eyebrow and mouth regions were important in Western
representations, whereas the eye region, particularly the gaze direction, was important in East
Asian representations of facial expressions (Jack, Caldara, & Schyns, 2011). Therefore, the
idea of universal facial emotion signals has been challenged by neuropsychological research.
Using a number of behavioral tasks, Maria Gendron and her colleagues also
challenged the idea of universal vocal and facial signals of emotions (Gendron, Roberson, van
der Vijver, & Barrett, in press-a; in press b). In their experiments, they tested if facial and
vocal expressions would be recognized without providing ‘basic emotion’ words by people
from an isolated culture. Himba participants, an ethnic group living in the remote parts of
northwestern Namibia, freely labeled, sorted, or matched emotional expressions. Throughout
different tasks, the Himba differentiated between positive and negative emotional expressions,
and to some extent between high and low activation expressions, but they did not clearly
distinguish between discrete emotions. The studies did not provide support for the idea of a
universal language for basic emotions: If anything, people universally distinguish between
vocal and facial expressions of positive and negative affect.
3.1.2.Universal emotions? Evidence from studies on physiological responses.
Other research aimed at showing cross-cultural similarity in the patterns of
physiological responses associated with several basic emotions (e.g., Levenson, Ekman,
Heider, & Friesen, 1992). Reliable measures of physiological responding in emotion are hard
to obtain because strong emotions are difficult to induce in the lab, and outside of the
laboratory, many factors confound measures of emotional responding. Therefore, the scientists
relied on a directed facial action task, a task that was built on the assumption that a particular
set of different emotion features (facial expression, physiological responding) is linked
invariantly to one emotion. In this task, participants’ physiological responses were measured
(e.g., heart rate, skin conductance, respiration) while they followed instructions to move
specific facial muscles in ways that characterize one of the basic emotions. For instance, the
instructions for a disgust expression were to a) wrinkle your nose while keeping your mouth
open, b) pull down your lower lip, and c) move your tongue forward without sticking it out. A
study comparing North American male college students, and men from a remote illiterate
culture –the Minangkabau, a relationship-oriented matriarchal society on Western Sumatra,
Indonesia — yielded largely similar patterns of physiological response associated cross-culturally with the same directed facial action (Levenson et al., 1992). Based on this finding,
the authors concluded universality in physiological response patterns associated with the
This interpretation has been challenged. First, it is not clear what the cross-cultural
the similarity in physiological responses means, given that several meta-reviews of research in
exclusively Western cultural settings have failed to find distinctive physiological patterns of
presumed basic emotions (see e.g., Cacioppo, Klein, Berntson & Hatfield, 1993). Second,
even if the directed action task yielded similarities in physiological responses, it also yielded a
a very significant difference between the American and the Minangkabau groups: In contrast to
the American participants, the Minangkabau did not report feeling the matching emotion. One
the explanation for this difference was suggested by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, two
prominent cultural psychologists: The Minangkabau conceive of emotions as social events,
and did not infer an emotional experience in the context of the directed action task, where the
respondents were by themselves (Markus & Kitayama, 1994). In sum, evidence for basic
emotions from physiological research are weak at best.
3.1.3. Basic emotions as universal building blocks.
Evidence from research on the measurable features of emotion – expressive behavior and
physiological responses—fails to support the basic emotion view. Note that the basic
emotions tradition has not generated any research on the subjective experience of emotion; the
latter was taken to be unanalyzable. In the next section, we discuss the componential view on
emotions that have produced many cross-cultural studies on emotional experience.
3.2. Universal components
Another school of thought, componential theory, focuses on the components of
emotional experience (e.g., Frijda, 2007). The componential theory proposes that emotional
experience can be further analyzed in terms of more basic and universal emotional
components. In addition, the relationship between these components and the emotional
experience is universal (Mesquita & Ellsworth, 2001): If the same set of components occur
cross-culturally, the same emotional experiences will too.
Cross-cultural research in this area has mainly focused on the two core components of
emotional experience: appraisals and action readiness. Appraisal refers to the individual’s
assessment of the meaning and relevance of a certain situation to the individual, and is usually
represented as the pattern of outcomes on several dimensions of meaning (e.g., to what extent
was the situation either pleasant or unpleasant, either conducive or harmful to self-esteem,
etc.). Action readiness refers to the motivating goal in the (social) situation and is usually
represented as an urge to act in certain ways (e.g., to what extent did you feel the urge to
withdraw from the situation, aggress towards the other person, etc), or as a change in the
the direction of the relationship with the (social) environment (e.g., moving away, moving
against). Appraisal and action readiness have been thought to constitute emotional experience
as well as organize all the other components.
3.2.1. The universal component-emotion link
The paradigm of most componential research consists of self-report studies.
Participants report real-life events in which they have experienced a given emotion (and its
translations in different cultures), and then rate their experience in that same situation with
respect to several emotion components: appraisal dimensions and/or action readiness modes.
It is important to mention that the dimensions of meaning (appraisal, action readiness) have
typically been theoretically derived by researchers from Western cultures, and that little effort
has been made to establish for each culture what the most central dimensions of meaning are.
The largest cross-cultural study using this paradigm was conducted by Klaus Scherer
and his colleagues and included students from 37 different countries from all over the world
(Scherer, 1997a, 1997b; ISEAR database by Scherer & Wallbott, see https://www.affectivesciences.org/researchmaterial). The study investigates to what extent the dimensions of
appraisal and action readiness mapped onto several emotions (mostly of the kind that Ekman
and colleagues had studied) in cross-culturally similar ways. It yielded substantial support for
cross-cultural similarity: A similar core of appraisals and action readiness was associated with
each of the seven emotions included. The study yielded some differences in the link between
components and emotions as well, to which we will return (section 4.1).
Evidence for cross-cultural similarities in the set of appraisal (or action readiness)
dimensions come from a slightly different approach to the same data. Several researchers
have examined whether the same set of component dimensions cross-culturally discriminated
between different emotions, at least to some extent. They found this to be partly the case:
Component dimensions accounted at the most for 40% of the variance in emotions, and this
held true across different cultures.
Whereas the same set of components meaningfully distinguished between emotions in
different cultures, it did not completely account for the differentiation between emotions (40%
is still a long way from 100%). Moreover, across cultures, the degree to which individual
appraisal and action readiness dimensions (e.g., pleasantness) discriminated between
emotions were different.
Differences may have been underestimated because all studies started from equivalent
emotion words in different languages, whose selection may have been based on similarities in
the associated meanings, to begin with. Thus, finding similarities in the components associated
with these emotional words may have merely confirmed the accuracy of the translation. To our
knowledge, not very many studies have shown a link between emotional components and
other features of emotion. An exception is a work by Anna Tcherkassof who conducted a cross-cultural recognition study among Burkina Faso and French participants, in which participants
identified the action readiness associated with facial expressions. The study was inspired by
Nico Frijda’s theory of facial expression as the initial manifestation of action readiness. This
study found that the rates of recognition, based on action readiness, did not significantly differ
between cultures, and were also no worse than recognition rates obtained by studies in which
participants judge the emotion expressed by a face (Tcherkassof & de Suremain, 2005). In
addition to suggesting that action readiness is an important dimension of emotional meaning,
because it differentiates between facial expressions, the findings also show that action
readiness is a no worse candidate for a universal building block than the basic emotions that
were proposed by Ekman.
3.2.2. Understanding indigenous emotions from universal components
The use of the componential approach is perhaps better illustrated by the way it
renders unfamiliar emotions comprehensible. An example comes from a study on amae,
which is considered a ‘culturally unique’ emotion for the Japanese culture (Niiya, Ellsworth,
& Yamaguchi, 2006). Amae is defined as the ability to depend and presume upon another’s
love or bask in another’s indulgence, and cannot be translated by anyone English emotional
word. However, Niiya and colleagues found that North American participants responded with
similar appraisals to amae-eliciting vignettes (i.e., a friend makes an inappropriate request for
help) as were found in Japanese. Therefore, amae was rendered comprehensible by studying
its associated components. The componential approach has provided a language to compare
emotional experience cross-culturally in terms of both the personal relevance of the situation
(appraisal) and the actions afforded (action readiness).
Appraisal and action readiness dimensions make unfamiliar emotions comprehensible,
which is proof of their usefulness. Yet, a reason to be critical is that much of the research has
adopted preconceived dimensions of appraisal and action readiness. Whereas some of these
dimensions have a logical appeal, there is no evidence that these dimensions are the ones that
are cross-culturally the most salient elements of meaning. Consistently, the combined
dimensions adopted in research, explain no more than about 40% of the variance in emotions,
and the importance of a given dimension differs across cultures.
4. Towards an understanding of cultural variations in emotion: the
Despite marked differences, the commonality between different approaches searching for
universals (basic emotions, componential approaches) is that they lack a theory to predict or
explain cultural differences in emotions. In this section, we will review research that shows
the profound role of culture in the daily emotional experiences of people. The research
reviewed generally assumes that emotions, or emotion components, that are ‘helpful’ or
‘functional’ in a culture will be more frequent or intense (see for detailed overviews, Mesquita,
2003; Mesquita & Leu, 2007). Below, we will illustrate several lines of research that explain
variation in emotional practice from central cultural differences.
4.1. Emotional frequency and intensity
Cultural differences exist with regard to the most frequent and intense emotions. These
differences are systematic and meaningful. In one series of studies, Shinobu Kitayama and his
colleagues compared emotional experience in the US and Japan, using a culture-sensitive,
bottom-up approach (e.g., Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000; Kitayama, Mesquita, &
In a first study, participants from both cultures rated the similarity between different
emotion words representing not only common American emotion words but also common
Japanese emotion words (and their translations). An emotional space defined by the
dimensions of valence (positive, negative) and social engagement (socially engaging,
disengaging) emerged from these ratings. Socially engaging emotions, such as friendliness
(positive) and shame (negative), reinforce and underline the relationship. In contrast, socially
disengaging emotions such as pride (positive) and anger (negative) reinforce and underline
the autonomy (and superiority) of the individual.
Many previous studies have established valence as an important dimension of
differentiation between emotions, but the finding of social engagement as a dimension
defining of emotions is new. Therefore, the first point to note is that the inclusion of the most
common Japanese emotion words (and their translations in English) yielded a different
structure of meaning than previous research that started from Western emotion words only.
Social engagement is an obvious candidate for a dimension of appraisal that has not been
included in most appraisal theories (but see research on the emotional dimension of Power or
Dominance – which may partially overlap with the dimension of Social Engagement –e.g.,
Fontaine, Scherer, & Soriano, 2013).
Subsequent studies by Kitayama and his colleagues yielded support for the idea that
the emotions that are most helpful in coordinating the relationships in a given cultural context
are experienced most frequently and intensely. These studies found that socially disengaging
emotions (e.g., pride, anger) were most frequent and intense in European American cultural
contexts where good relationships are defined by the autonomy and independence between
individuals. In contrast, socially disengaging emotions (e.g., pride, anger) were more frequent
and intense in East Asian cultural contexts where good relationships are defined by the
relatedness and interdependence of the partners. Emotions that fit the cultural models are both
more frequent and intense; therefore, there are cultural differences in emotional practice.
Not only the frequency and intensity of emotions as such but also of individual
emotional components can be predicted from cultural models (Mesquita & Leu, 2007). For
example, agency appraisals (responsibility, control) have been found in many different
studies to be more frequent in Western, independent cultures where an individual’s agency is
deemed more central and important than in nonwestern interdependent cultures. Naturally,
the occurrence of certain appraisals may also account for the occurrence of the matching
emotions: Claiming responsibility would go with pride (Imada & Ellsworth, 2011)
4.2. The role of situations
One reason for cultural differences in emotional practice may be that, across cultures,
people encounter different types of situations. For example, it is possible that people in some
cultures simply receive more compliments than in other cultures, and thus experience more
pride. Several studies have suggested that the situations that are likely to occur within a
culture are far from random: There will be more opportunities for situations that elicit
emotions that are consistent with the prevailing cultural models.
In a series of comparative survey studies from our own lab, we predicted the frequency
of a set of emotion eliciting situations from (a) their potential to elicit a given emotion, and
(b) the value of that emotion within the particular culture (Boiger, Mesquita, Uchida, &
Barrett, 2013; Boiger, Güngör, Karasawa, & Mesquita, in press). The research focused on
shame and anger. In a comparison between the US and Japan, the researchers expected that
anger situations in the US would be afforded because anger is a hallmark of autonomy and
independence. In contrast, anger was expected to be avoided in Japan, where it violates the
interdependent model of relatedness and harmony. Conversely, shame was expected to be
condoned in Japan, where it is consistent with the idea of self-reflection and self-improvement, whereas it was expected to be condemned in the US, because it undermines
positive self-regard, which is a cornerstone of the US cultural model. Consistent with these
expectations, the researchers found that the higher the potency of a situation to elicit (high
intensity) anger, the higher its frequency was rated in the US, and the lower in Japan;
conversely, the higher the potency of a situation to elicit (high intensity) shame, the lower its
rated frequency in the US, and the higher in Japan. More refined analyses of the differences
between cultures may thus serve to predict which situations are culturally promoted, and
which situations are avoided.
Research by Jeanne Tsai and her colleagues has found that individuals seek out those
emotions that afford important cultural tasks: influencing in the US, and adjusting in East
Asian cultures. Consistently, European Americans “ideally wanted to feel” more high activation positive states than East Asians, and East Asians “ideally wanted to feel” more
low-activation positive emotional states than European Americans (e.g., Tsai, Knutson, &
Fung, 2006). In one within-culture experimental study, Tsai and colleagues found clear
evidence that ideal emotions were associated with the task at hand. American participants
valued high-arousal positive states more after being assigned the task to influence others, and
low-arousal positive states after they were asked to adjust to others (i.e., suppress personal
needs and change their own behaviors to meet others’ needs; Tsai, Miao, Seppala, Fung, &
Across studies, people select situations that will lead to culturally valued emotions.
When given a choice, European Americans in an experimental setting consistently selected
artifacts (e.g., CDs) that elicited high-arousal over those eliciting low-arousal activities,
whereas the reverse was true for East Asians (Tsai et al., 2007, Study 4). Societal statistics
confirmed these experimental results: North Americans consistently preferred re-creative
drugs, leisure activities, and music preferences that elicited high-arousal positive emotions
over those eliciting low-arousal positive emotions, whereas there was a preference for
activities that elicit low-arousal positive emotions in East Asian societies. Moreover, within a
North-American sample, individual differences in ideal effect in fact predicted preferential
activities (leisure time, drugs, types of vacations) in ways that mirrored cultural differences
between North Americans and East Asians (Tsai, Knutson, & Rothman, 2007).
4.3. The role of concern salience
Why people evaluate a situation as pleasant or unpleasant differs in ways that more or
less follow from the important cultural models of independence and interdependence. Inexperience sampling research, Mesquita and Karasawa (2002) found that in an American
group of college students, events were rated as pleasant (or, to the contrary, unpleasant) to the
extent they were relevant to independent concerns, such as self-esteem and being in control.
In contrast, pleasantness in a Japanese group was judged as much by independent as by
interdependent concerns; examples of the latter are feelings of closeness and other people’s
Consistently, European Americans and Asian Americans showed enhanced emotional
reactivity when the dominant aspects of their self-concept were activated (Yulia ChentsovaDutton & Tsai, 2010). In experimental research, priming individual aspects of the self, leading to
greater levels of positive emotions and smiling in European Americans, whereas priming of
relational aspects of the self was associated with greater emotional reactivity in Asian
Americans. Emotions are more intense when they are about culturally focal concerns
(including culturally central aspects of the self).
Recent research from our own lab has found that culturally focal concerns do not only
affect the intensity of emotions but also the types of emotions (De Leersnyder, Mesquita,
Koval & Kuppens, submitted). Belgian and Turkish respondents indicated how relevant
emotional situations were to both self-focused values (e.g. personal success) and other focused values (e.g., loyalty). Across studies using different methods, we found that
situations that self-focused values elicited more disengaging emotions (pride, anger), whereas
other-focused values elicited more engaging emotions (friendliness, shame). In addition, we
found that the frequency with which these values were perceived as relevant to Belgian
students’ emotional situations exactly mirrored young Belgians’ value hierarchy (i.e., most
important values as “guiding principles in people’s life”), as obtained from a national
representative sample by the European Social Survey (ESS round5; Norwegian Social Science
Data Services, 2012; De Leersnyder & Mesquita, in preparation). Together, these findings
suggest that cultural differences in the salience of certain values may be one of the reasons for
differences in the rates and intensity of engaging and disengaging emotions.
4.4. Feeling culturally appropriate emotions is rewarding
If the emotions of people from different cultures are different, then, by the same token,
emotions of people within one culture should converge. In fact, recent research has suggested
that the emotional experiences of immigrants over time grow more similar to the emotions of
people from the new culture; and that intergroup contact promotes this emotional
acculturation (see e.g., De Leersnyder, Mesquita, & Kim, 2011).
We have suggested that cultural differences in emotional phenomena can be
understood from their functionality to the culture. What is the evidence that this is so? Several
studies have found evidence that fitting in, or having the same emotions as most others in
your culture, is beneficial; or conversely, that not having the emotions that are culturally
aspired, can be harmful. For instance, subjective well-being (good feelings) was more closely
related to engaging positive emotions (e.g., friendly feelings, respect) in Japan, but to
disengaging emotions (e.g., pride, superiority) in the US (Kitayama et al., 2006). In more
recent research from our own lab, we found that emotional fit with the cultural average
predicted relational well-being; this was true in three different cultures: the US, Belgium, and
Turkey (De Leersnyder, Mesquita, Kim, Eom, & Choi, 2014). Finally, Tsai and colleagues
(2007) found that depression, the opposite of wellbeing, was predicted by the differences
between culturally ideal emotions and a person’s actual emotions. In the Chinese sample, the
relative absence of low activation positive emotions predicted depression, but in the American
sample, it was the relative absence of high activation positive emotions. In sum, individuals
have better outcomes when they are more similar to others in their culture.
5. Emerging trends
Research on culture and emotion has moved beyond the dichotomous question of whether
emotions are nature or nurture, and has started to investigate more nuanced and detailed
questions. It is clear that some of the building blocks of emotions may be universal in ways
that make it possible to largely comprehend emotional lives in other cultures, even if they are
very different from our own. It is equally clear that the emotional lives of people in different
cultures vary in systematic, predictable, and meaningful ways. Moreover, the cultural
differences are dictated by, what could be considered, universal rules: People have emotions
that are helpful in their own cultural context. There is plasticity in emotions, even in later life:
When immigrants move to a new cultural context, their emotions slowly adapt.
Whereas our knowledge of cultural similarities and differences in emotions has
become much more detailed and systematic, insight into the processes that lead to crossculturally different emotional lives are still very limited. These processes constitute the
challenge of future research on culture and emotion. Two emerging trends will be discussed
5.1. Emerging trends: Emotions as momentary constructions
Emotions are increasingly seen as constructions in the moment (Barrett, 2006;
Mesquita & Boiger, 2014), rather than pre-established entities, with the implication that an
emotion concept may be constructed differently across both contexts and cultures. In this
regard, the finding from the Directed Action Task that American men and Minangkabau men
did not construct their facial expressions to signal a subjective feeling of emotion is
interesting (Levenson et al., 1992). The finding suggests that the construction of an emotion is
not just bottom-up, as in constituted by appraisals, action readiness, and self-perceived facial
expression, but also top-down, guided by the culture’s lay theory of emotion. The idea is
consistent with psychological constructivist theories of emotion (e.g., Barrett, 2006).
Another consequence of this view that emotions are constructed at the moment is that
emotions are differently constituted at different moments in time (even within one culture). To
do justice to the complex nature of emotional experience, we recently conducted a study that
established the variety of patterns of appraisal and action readiness that were associated with
anger and shame in three different cultures: US, Belgium, and Japan. In each of these cultures,
we observed the same three varieties of patterns for each emotion, but not at the same rates.
The dominant patterns (of appraisals and action readiness) differed by culture, such that the
culture of the participant was accurately predicted in 40-50% of the cases (Boiger, De
Leersnyder, Uchida, Norasakunkit, Ceulemans, & Mesquita in preparation).
5.2. Emerging trends: Emotions as relational constructs
A second trend emerging in (cultural) research on emotions is to study emotions in their
social and relational context (Butler, 2011; Mesquita, 2010; Mesquita & Boiger, 2014). In
particular, researchers have started to study how this social context helps to create and
regulate the fit of emotions with cultural norms, and also, in the long run, how it helps to
develop culturally adaptive emotional dispositions. The best examples come from
developmental psychology. In one cross-cultural study in Germany and Japan, Trommsdorff
and Kornadt (2003) compared the emotional interactions between mothers and their children
when the child had disobeyed. They found that German mothers readily attributed blame to
their children, therefore reacting with anger. An escalation of anger and resistance would
ensue. The conflict ended unresolved, leaving both the mother and the child angry and hurt. A
very different interaction pattern was observed in Japanese mother-child dyads: Japanese
mothers were more likely to interpret disobedience empathetically (“the child is just a child, is
too much absorbed in playing, is too tired”; Trommsorff & Kornadt, 2003, p. 296), and to
react in an accommodating manner. The Japanese mothers remained friendly, though they
kept insisting that the child obeyed. Even though the repeated failure of the child to give in would
get them disappointed, they avoided putting relational harmony in jeopardy. In the end, both
parties started making partial concessions, thus protecting the desired feeling of one-ness
(ittaikan), and re-instating harmony. Both interactions were constructed based on cultural
models of self and relationship. German mother-child interaction accomplished the cultural
model of independence and autonomy by influencing and asserting oneself, whereas Japanese
interactions accomplished harmony and relatedness by adjustment and empathy.
The mother-child interactions had long-term effects on children’s relational patterns:
In both cultures, the escalation of interactions in early childhood negatively predicted the
level of empathy-based altruism and positively predicted aggression nine years later. These
interaction patterns can, therefore, be understood as necessary socialization experiences:
Independent German children learn to assert themselves, whereas interdependent Japanese
children learn to accommodate and to place relational harmony over individual desires. This
example vividly shows how social context and emotions are intricately interwoven in ways
that are consistent with the prevalent cultural meanings.
This example shows how engagement in culturally particular social interactions and
relationships directly shapes emotions (cf. Kitayama, Park, Sevincer, Karasawa, & Uskul,
2009). Therefore, culture’s influence on emotions is not merely mediated by beliefs (e.g.,
Matsumoto, 1990), but rather afforded and scaffolded by social interactions as they evolve in
a particular culture. It is the future of culture and emotion research to further probe the ways
in which culture is produced and reproduced in emotional interactions, a process known as the
“microgenesis of culture” (Kashima, 2008).
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Psychology Assignment on Emotional Awareness and Critical Reflection