Emotions Are the Cultural Lens Shaping Our World

Have you ever felt an emotion so strong that it seemed like an undeniable fact, a universal truth that anyone anywhere would understand exactly the same way?

Kristen Lindquist, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sheds light on a fascinating perspective: our emotions, those powerful, often overwhelming forces, are not as universal as we might think.

They’re deeply intertwined with the cultural environments we grow up in, shaping and being shaped by the world around us. This intriguing interplay between our emotional experiences and cultural backgrounds might change how we perceive emotions and their influence on our lives.

The Dual Roots of Emotion Studies

The study of emotions has historically been torn between two fields: medicine, focusing on the biological aspects, and anthropology, emphasizing cultural influences.

This division is reflected in the ongoing debate within psychology, pitting biological instincts against cultural constructs. 

Lindquist’s work dives into this complex interplay, exploring how our brains, in their quest to ensure survival, generate emotions deeply colored by our cultural backgrounds. This dual heritage suggests that while emotions have a biological basis, the specific feelings we experience and how we interpret them are significantly molded by our cultural upbringing.

Cultural Artifacts of Emotion

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Lindquist argues that emotions can be seen as cultural artifacts—passed down through generations, much like art or language. This perspective challenges the notion of emotions as solely innate, highlighting how cultural context plays a crucial role in shaping emotional experiences.

The brain, a predictive organ, uses cultural knowledge and personal experiences to interpret and react to the world. This results in “affective realism,” where our emotions can distort our perception of reality.

This proves that our emotional responses are not just internal states but are influenced by the cultural lenses we view the world through.1

The Influence of Culture on Emotion

Investigating how emotions vary across cultures, Lindquist points out significant differences in how emotions like anger are expressed and physiologically experienced in individualistic versus collectivist societies.

For example, anger in the United States often results in a physical inflammation response, whereas in Japan, it does not.

This suggests that not only do our cultural backgrounds influence how we express emotions, but they also affect the underlying physiological responses, challenging the idea of universal emotional experiences.

Gender, Emotion, and Cultural Expectations

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The intersection of culture and emotion extends into gender roles, with cultural expectations influencing how emotions are perceived and expressed differently among men and women.

Cultural norms around gender can lead to disparities in how emotions are validated or dismissed, with potentially significant consequences for individuals’ health and well-being.

Lindquist’s research emphasizes the importance of understanding these cultural influences to foster more authentic emotional expressions across genders.

The Language of Emotions

Lindquist also explores how language shapes our understanding of emotions, revealing that all cultures do not recognize the basic emotion categories we assume to be universal.

This insight into the variability of emotional language challenges the assumption that certain emotional states, such as fear or surprise, are universally experienced, suggesting instead that cultural context significantly influences how emotions are perceived, labeled, and understood.2

Embracing Emotional Diversity

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Finally, Lindquist encourages a broader appreciation for the diversity of emotional experiences. Recognizing that personal and cultural histories shape our own emotional reactions can open up new pathways for understanding and connecting with others, especially in increasingly multicultural societies.

By acknowledging the unique emotional landscapes of individuals from diverse backgrounds, we can move towards a more inclusive understanding of what it means to feel and express emotions.

  1. psychologyfanatic.com/affective-realism/
  2. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10901990/
Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.