There’s the always charming notion that “deep down we’re all the same,” suggesting all of humanity shares a universal core of shared emotions.
Batja Mesquita, a social psychologist at Belgium’s University of Leuven where she is director of the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology, begs to disagree. Based on her pioneering work into the field of cultural psychology, she theorizes that what many would consider universal emotions – say anger or maternal love – are actually products of culture. “We’re making these categories that obviously have things in common,” she acknowledges, “but they’re not a ‘thing’ that’s in your head. When you compare between cultures, the commonalities become fewer and fewer.”
In this Social Science Bites podcast, she explains how this is so to interviewer David Edmonds. “In contrast to how many Western people think about emotions, there’s not a thing that you can see when you lift the skull – there’s not thing there for you to discover,” Mesquita says. “What we call emotions are often events in the world that feel a certain way … certain physical experiences.”
She gives the example of anger.
“In many cultures there is something like not liking what another person imposes on you, or not liking another person’s behavior, but anger, and all the instances of anger that we think about when we think about anger, that is not universal. I’m saying ‘instances of anger’ because I also don’t think that emotions are necessarily ‘in the head,’ that they’re inside you as feelings. What we recognize as emotions are often happening between people.”
That idea that emotions are not some ‘thing’ residing individually in each of our collective heads informs much of Mesquita’s message, in particular her delineation between MINE and OUR emotions (a subject she fleshes out in depth in her latest book, Between Us: How cultures create emotion, which reflects a project begun when she was a 2016-17 fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University).
MINE emotions, as the name suggests, are the mental feelings within the person. OUR emotions are the emotions that happen between people, emotions that are relational and dependent on the situation. Does this communal emotion-making sound revolutionary to many ears? Perhaps that’s because it deviates from the Western tradition.
“We haven’t done very much research aside from university students in Western cultures,” Mesquita notes. “The people who have developed emotion theories were all from the same cultures and were mostly doing research with the same cultures, and so they were comfortably confirmed in their hypotheses.”
Also, she continued, Western psychology looks at psychological processes as things, such as ‘memories’ or ‘cognition.’ “We like to think if we went deep enough into the brain we would find these things.
“The new brain science doesn’t actually find these things. But it’s still a very attractive way to analyze human emotion.” Just, in her view, the wrong way.
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