The biological hardware and the cultural software of the emotions

Here’s an interesting article from the journal Japanese Psychological Research looking at Emotional Intelligence, twenty years after the concept was first developed. The idea of EI a big impact on British education via the school subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which was inspired by Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology best-seller, Emotional Intelligence, and launched by New Labour in 2002. The authors suggest that EI was too broad a concept to be conceptually coherent, covering everything from information-processing to emotional self-regulation to being a morally good person. The search for a single conceptual definition of EI proved elusive, as did the search for proper measurements of it. The authors also say there were cross-cultural issues with trying to create one universal definition of EI:

In writing for Japanese Psychological Research, we wish particularly to highlight cultural issues. The extent to which EI, as a construct derived largely from Western psychology, could be universally applicable remains unclear. Although basic emotions are considered universal, display rules and other aspects of emotional functioning may be culture- bound (Mesquita, 2001). Thus, adaptive emotional behaviors may vary from culture to culture. Also, research on EI tends to focus on possible benefits for the individual such as personal well-being and social and career success.

A concept of EI relevant to East Asian cultures may be different in several respects from the Western model. First, such cultures have a more collectivist experience of both positive and negative emotions. For example, Japanese people appear to be more prone to socially engaging emotions, such as friendly feelings and guilt, whereas North Americans experience disengaging emotions, such as pride and anger, more intensely (Kitayama, Mesquita, & Karasawa, 2006). Furthermore, in Japan, general subjective well-being is more closely linked to engaging one’s positive emotions than to dis- engaging emotions, a pattern that tends to reverse in the USA (Kitayama et al., 2006). Thus, if EI is defined in relation to emotions that promote personal well-being, its conceptualization would be somewhat different in the two countries. At the same time, we should not ignore cross-cultural similarities in emotional functioning. For example, although Japanese and Chinese respondents obtain lower average scores on self-esteem scales, relative to the USA, self-esteem appears to have the same functional relationship to well-being in all these cultures (Yamaguchi, Lin, Morio, & Okumura, 2008).

Second, there may be cross-cultural differences in the intrinsic value placed on emotions. In Western thought, following Darwin, all emotions are seen as essentially adaptive, although sometimes subject to misregulation. By contrast, Ekman, Davidson, Ricard, and Wallace (2005) point out that Indo-Tibetan Buddhism sees certain emotions as being intrinsically beneficial or harmful. Examples of the latter are cravings for some desirable object, hatred, jealousy, and arrogance (compare, for example, Buss’s, (2000) evolutionary account of jealousy).

Interestingly, Ekman et al. (2005) also describe trait-like concepts from Buddhism that might loosely be seen as corresponding to high and low EI. The Sanskrit term “sukha” refers to a condition of happiness and flourishing that reflects mental equilibrium and awareness of the true nature of reality. Conversely, “duhkha” expresses a vulnerability to suffering resulting from basic misapprehensions of reality, including harmful emotional reactions. Third, Western theories of emotion are prone to fractionate the construct into multiple psychological processes (or even brain systems). Much writing on EI is based on the idea of a sharp separation of cognition and emotion, expressed in the classical metaphor of the charioteer (cognition) steering the horses that pull the chariot (emotion) (Leahy, 2007), although some authors have argued for a more integrated perspective (Averill, 2007). By contrast, “Eastern healing traditions respect individuals as unique entities living in the fluid dynamics of complex personal-relational, environmental- physical and philosophical-moral interactions of men with the universe” (Chan, Ng, Ho, & Chow, 2006).

Similarly, Ekman et al. (2005) point out that Buddhism does not make sharp distinctions between emotions and other mental processes. From these holistic perspectives on emotional and spiritual well-being, it may be difficult to sustain the Western notion of EI as a distinctive “thing in the head” of the individual. Thus far, studies of EI have largely ignored such cultural factors. Typically, researchers have taken English-language tests for EI and trans- lated them into other languages with the aim of comparing psychometric properties across cultures, with rather mixed outcomes (Ekermans, Saklofske, Austin, & Stough, 2011; Sharma, Deller, Biswal, & Mandal, 2009). In Japan, psy- chometric studies include those reported by Fukunishi, Wise, Sheridan, Shimai, Otake, Utsuki, and Uchiyama (2001) and Toyoda and Kawahashi (2005). However, the mean differences in test scores sometimes reported are hard to interpret, in the absence of any theory relevant to interpreting cultural differences. Doubts about the construct validity of EI also make it difficult to perform meaningful cross- cultural comparisons.
The authors end by suggesting that EI may still be a useful field of research, but that it needs to break itself down into four separate concepts each with their own research focus: temperament, information-processing, emotional regulation, and context-bound emotional knowledge and skills. Of these, they think that the last concept is the most easily taught aspect of EI (therefore most appropriately taught in schools), and that it can also be measured by Situation Judgement Tests and the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso EI test.

I personally think one can be alive to cultural and historical differences in attitudes to emotions, but one also needs to consider biological and psychological mechanisms underlying how emotions arise, which presumably don’t change that much in different races. In other words, emotional experience depends, in my view, on both the ‘hardware’ of our psycho-biological natures as human beings, and on the ‘software’ of our cultural, social and personal history and attitudes as individuals, families, tribes, classes and societies.

I think that cognitive-social psychology does a good job at describing the hardware of how emotions arise, and how they follow cognitive judgements. I don’t think this ‘charioteer’ model of the emotions is entirely a Western construct, from Socrates, Plato and the Stoics. You also see the cognitive theory of the emotions in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, for example, which tells us:

‘the world is as the mind sees and feels it; the world is as the mind thinks of it’

This can be compared to the Stoic notion, at the root of CBT, that ‘life itself is but what you deem it’, as the Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius puts it.

Likewise, as this new paper points out in the International Journal of Research Studies in Psychology, in the Bhagavad Gita you see both the cognitive theory of the emotions, and the metaphor of the charioteer of right-thinking steering the confused psyche. Krishna, the charioteer, tells Arjuna:

Thinking of objects, attachment to them is formed in a man. From attachment longing, and from longing anger grows. From anger comes delusion, and from delusion loss of memory. From loss of memory comes the ruin of discrimination, and from the ruin of discrimination, he perishes.

You also see the cognitive theory of the emotions, and the metaphor of reason steering the cart of the emotions, in the Dhammapada, or the sayings of the Buddha. On the very first page of that book, we read:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox….”He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled. “He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.

What I am arguing for, then, is a soft universalism of the emotions, which argues:
1) Our emotions follow our thoughts and attitudes.

2) Those attitudes may be unconscious and automatic, but we can bring them into consciousness using things like dialogue or introspection.

3) We can change our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes, and this will also change our emotions.

4) We can create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting.
This is a very basic cognitive theory of the emotions, and it is found in Plato, the Stoics, Epicurus, the Buddha, LaoTzu and elsewhere. It differs, however, from animist theories of the emotions, including some forms of Christianity, which suggest emotions come from supernatural sources outside of us and beyond our control – either grace from God or negative emotions from demons. The charioteer model of the emotions is more self-directed and secular than that, though it doesn’t preclude a belief in God or the immortality of the soul. But it insists that on the whole we are responsible for our thoughts and emotions and we (as individuals and societies) have to take responsibility for them by learning to be mindful of our thoughts and attitudes.
It is easy to extend this basic cognitive model of the emotions into a more social, cultural or historical model, by recognising that our beliefs and attitudes will be greatly shaped by our language, culture and society, and what our society deems appropriate emotional expression. Therefore, we have a responsibility not just for our own thoughts and attitudes, but for how we shape the attitudes of our society. As Plato recognised, everything we hear and read will have an impact on our emotions, and likewise everything we say, write or do will impact the emotions of others. Our individual emotions are tied to our attitudes, and our attitudes are to a large extent shared and social.
So I think one can combine some universal psycho-biological model of how the emotions arise and how we can change them (the hardware of our species), with a cultural and historical sense of all the different forms those constructions can take (the software). This could be the basis for a useful dialogue between cognitive-social psychologists and historians of the emotions.


  • Anonymous says:

    I am really interested in this topic, good post. How much does your soft universalism allow for biological fixedness of some simple emotional reactions? What would you say about:
    "0. Our thought and attitudes follow our emotions."?

    Petr Dvorak

  • Jules Evans says:

    i think that may be the case sometimes.

    for example, if i do ecstasy, this alters the chemicals in my brain and triggers happy or loving emotions, and my thoughts and attitudes follow that and i think 'the world is wonderful'. though i still have a choice whether to accept that judgement as rational and valid, even when on ecstasy.

    i could make the judgement 'the world seems wonderful to me now, but thats at least partly because i am on ecstasy'. and that will affect how i feel too.

    so i think even in that instance, to some extent we can choose how we think and how we frame our experience.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Sorry, i should express that clearer.

    I think the Stoics would say that if you did ecstasy you have warm pleasant feelings, but for it to become an emotion you would have to make a judgement 'this is indeed a wonderful and happy situation'.

    so even in that instance, your interpretation makes a big difference.

    you could, for example, interpret the initial sensations of ecstasy very differently, and think 'what the hell is happening to me, this is terrifying, im going to die' and that would completely change your emotional experience.

  • Anonymous says:

    Yes, interpretation makes a big difference. The key role of appraisal seems to be supported by classical experiments with adrenaline shots where the resulting emotions depended mostly on how the subject interpreted the situation.
    On the other hand, I have this subjective experience: sometimes I have a bad mood and it seems that my mind seeks opportunities to evaluate the events in a negative way. I get rid with one set of negative thoughts (via disputation or other CBT techniques), but my mind quickly comes up another reason to have negative thoughts. So it seems to me that there is something biologicaly fundamental going on what I can´t alter by cognitive reinterpretation, only by e. g. physical exercise, which directly changes brain chemistry. But well, it´s mood and not emotion, these two are different.
    Petr Dvorak

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