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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Lebenswissen­schaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Psychologie

Cultural factors that influence the perception of emotions

The evidence to date suggests that basic emotion expressions are by and large universally recognized. However, there is also evidence for cultural variation. This observation has let to the dialect theory of emotion by Elfenbein and colleagues. The present project investigates the sources of cultural differences and how they can be explained.
One plausible explanation is based in appraisal theory of emotion and proposes that emotion expressions do not represent a unitary phenomenon but are the cumulative result of underlying appraisals (Scherer, 1992; Smith & Scott, 1997). Scherer (1987) conceives of emotions as families. Thus, irritation, rage and anger would all be members of an anger family. Members of these families share central appraisals (such as goal obstruction for anger) but may differ with regard to other appraisals. He proposes that within a given culture a "modal" (in the sense of statistically most common) appraisal pattern will develop for each emotion as a function of the cultural constraints posed. As emotional facial expressions are a function of appraisal outcomes and because central appraisals are shared amongst member of the family, key recognizable elements of the expression are shared as well. Yet, the subtle differences in appraisals would result in subtly different expressions. From this perspective emotions would be expressed somewhat differently in different cultures because modal emotions are subtly different, but retain enough similarity to allow cross-cultural decoding. This notion is currently being followed up in two intercultural studies.
Thibault, P., Gosselin, P., Brunel, M.-L., Hess, U. (2009). Children's and adolescents' perception of the authenticity of smiles. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102, 360-367.
Elfenbein, H. A., Beaupré, M. G., Levesque, M., & Hess, U. (2007). Toward a dialect theory: Cultural differences in expressing and recognizing facial expressions. Emotion, 7, 131-146.
Thibault, P., Bourgeois, P., & Hess, U. (2006). The effect of group-identification on emotion recognition: The case of cats and basketball players. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 676-683.
Beaupré, M. G. & Hess, U. (2006). An in-group advantage for confidence in emotion recognition judgments: the moderating effect of familiarity with the expressions of out-group members. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 16-26.
Beaupré, M. G. & Hess, U. (2005). Cross-cultural emotion recognition among Canadian ethnic groups. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 26, 355-370.
Beaupré, M.G, & Hess, U. (2003). In my mind, we all smile: A case of in-group favoritism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 371-377.