Getting a Feel for Emotions: Emotional Development Attracts Cross-Cultural Explorations

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, September 19, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Getting a Feel for Emotions: Emotional Development Attracts Cross-Cultural Explorations


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Who says scientists are a dispassionate, sober lot? When they start talking about emotions, the fur and the fervent opinions start to fly.

The most bruising clashes have revolved around the relative strengths of biology and culture in producing the rich palette of feelings that color daily life. During much of the first half of the 20th century, the dominant view--prominently espoused by anthropologist Margaret Mead --held that each culture shapes its members' emotional experiences in unique ways. In the past few decades, however, biological and evolutionary forces that transcend any particular culture have received growing attention as orchestrators of a universal set of emotions.

One current theory, for example, posits that evolution has endowed the human brain with a set of basic emotions, each of which produces a distinctive facial expression--at least when people aren't trying to hide their feelings. A contrasting view holds that emotions and facial displays are social communication tools, which take shape from cultural forces rather than hard-wired brain networks.

Everyone agrees, though, that the terrain of emotional development contains many uncharted areas. For instance, researchers have yet to decipher how children attain a sense of when to be angry, how to express anger, or what to do in situations perceived as scary.

Three studies published in the July Developmental Psychology attempt to untangle a few cross-cultural similarities and differences in emotional development. The first project documents the emotional responses of Canadian and Chinese infants to the expressionless face of a parent or stranger. The second investigation tracks the emotional expressions of infants in the United States, Japan, and China during experimental sessions designed to elicit either frustration or fear. The third report delves into the ways Nepalese children raised in either Hindu or Buddhist ethnic groups respond emotionally to challenging social situations.

Explorations such as these move toward the ultimate goal of teasing out universal features of emotion from realms of feeling that are unique to specific belief systems, says psychologist Carolyn Saarni of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif.

"To study the rich variability of emotional experience in individuals and across societies, we will need to add considerable flexibility to our conceptual categories [for describing emotional development]," Saarni contends.

The three new studies stretch ideas about emotional development in different directions. Psychologist Barbara S. Kisilevsky of Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario, directed the exploration of how babies interact emotionally with their mothers. In North America, other investigations have found that if a mother talks and coos with her baby as usual, employing typical facial expressions, vocal tones, and touch, and then presents a neutral "still face" without talking or touching the infant for 1 to 2 minutes, the child largely stops gazing and smiling at the mother.

Researchers suspect that the baby withdraws from social give-and-take when a mother violates her child's expectations. This effect, noted in infants ages 2 to 11 months, also emerges in experimental interactions with strangers and televised images of the mother.

Kisilevsky's group conducted still-face experiments in southeastern China with 13 male and 27 female infants, ages 3 to 6 months, in sessions with mothers, fathers, and strangers, the youngsters exhibited still-face responses much like those of white Canadian peers in previous studies.

There were, however, some behavioral differences. Chinese infants moved about much less than Canadian children in response to still faces, perhaps because Chinese babies are held continually for at least the first 6 months of life and may be discouraged by their mothers from squirming.

Nonetheless, Kisilevsky and her colleagues assert, "the universality of the still-face effect is perhaps an innate withdrawal response [of infants] to a lack of communication.

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