Are emotions universal?
14 June 2018 - 5 min read
The way we behave when we feel different emotions is at the heart of our interactions with other people. When we show our friends that we are excited, or nervous about something, and they behave similarly, we feel a strong sense of connection.
Sometimes we even feel what they’re feeling without realizing it. If you ever find yourself smiling at the TV, you’re probably experiencing a form of this ‘emotional contagion’.
This isn’t confined to humans either — if you dance around with excitement, it won’t be long before your dog is doing the same!
But are we really feeling the same thing? Are emotions universal?
The universal experience of emotions
The question of whether we all experience the same range of emotions has been explored by scientists for centuries, from Charles Darwin’s writings in the 1870s to psychologist Paul Ekman’s studies in the 1960s.
Some basic emotions, such as fear, contentment and anxiety, are directly linked to our survival. If we don’t feel fear at the sight of a grizzly bear, we won’t last long! These seem to be biologically hard-wired, and shared by humans and other animals alike.
Ekman listed six basic emotions that are common to all human cultures: happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, fear and disgust. This list was later expanded to include higher emotions such as pride, guilt, embarrassment and shame. By showing people from isolated cultures images of different facial expressions, he concluded that the response to emotion appeared to be universal. More recent studies have also shown that some emotions are shared by all cultures.
However, when it comes to more sophisticated emotions, such as love, admiration and envy, there is some disagreement over whether we experience, and recognize them in the same way, casting doubt over Ekman’s original theory. Even a simple expression of emotion such as a smile might provoke a different response in different cultures.
Our individual experience of emotions
Even within cultures, there can be variation in how we experience, and display emotion.
Think of your own close friends and family — they probably all express their emotions in different ways, and the slight twitch of an eyebrow can completely change our interpretation of what they’re feeling.
Our emotions are triggered by processes in the brain that evaluate our physical environment, past experiences, memories, and beliefs in a uniquely individual way. While we may have a similar range of emotions, what prompts anger in one person might cause fear in another.
We also express our emotions in our own way — some people are demonstrative, whereas others are more reserved. This means that observing behavior isn’t always enough to tell if our feelings are the same.
A common emotional language
Where, when, and how we express our emotions are also determined by social norms.
These so-called display-rules help us fit in with our social group. Often these expectations are tied to age, gender, culture or situation. For example, the emotions you are expected to display at a wedding will be quite different to what’s considered acceptable at a funeral.
So emotions are an internal experience, but the external expression of those feelings serves different social functions, and in order for those social functions to be achieved, we must have some common emotional language.
Having a common emotional language helps strengthen our community. This ability to understand and read emotions in others, and empathize with their emotional experiences, is known as emotional intelligence.
By developing a more sensitive understanding of how emotional language differs within, and between cultures, we can develop our own emotional intelligence, and enjoy more meaningful social relationships with the people around us.