Culture and Emotions

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Cultural theories play a large role in justifying how people learn normal emotions and the appropriate way to display them. The James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, and Schachter-Singer theories of emotion each suggest different ways to evaluate how we form our emotions, yet they don’t all agree with each other; the idea is much more abstract than that. Each culture has variations in the way these are taught which is why individual cultures have unique forms of responding to situations. Despite having cultural differences among their use of emotions, all individuals are faced with the same type of feelings, no matter where you come from. I’m a student at one of the most diverse universities in the nation and here it’s clear that the way I comprehend my feelings and exert my emotions is much different from that of the next person. My cultural background shaped mine in response to events and people, and culture is what will continue to mold the way people experience emotions in life.

There are three notable theories of emotion that try to suggest how we learn cultural normalcies on what to feel and the appropriate way of portraying those feelings. William James, psychologist, and Carl Lange, physiologist, worked together to propose an idea known as the James-Lange theory of emotion. This theory implies that people first face a physical response to a stimulus, and that person’s interpretation of said reaction will then lead to an emotional experience. For example, if you were swimming in the ocean and saw a shark fin, your heartrate would first increase and then from that point, you would be able to conclude you were scared. Originally, the first reactions of a perception were assumed to be cognitive, yet this theory suggests otherwise. Later it was proven by medical professionals that humans dealing with extreme sensory loss still had the potential to feel and portray their own emotions. Despite this finding, the theory still maintains some relevance because part of the theory still proves to be supported by evidence.

A second theory is an explanation proposed by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard that suggests we experience an emotion as well as its physical counterpart at the same time. In greater detail, this idea states that emotions come from the signal sent by the thalamus to the brain in reaction to a stimulus, forming the complete physical reaction. For example, if you were building a sandcastle on a beach and a crab scurried up to you, you would get frightened and begin to shake. Based on the Cannon-Bard theory, our reaction to a stimulus and the emotion we experience as a result will all occur simultaneously. The emotional reactions and physiological reactions are said to be independent. Some argue that this theory is invalid because studies have since suggested otherwise. More specifically, when people are asked to frown or smile, there’s a high chance of them feeling an emotion in relation with that facial movement.

The third notable theory to discuss is much in agreement with the James-Lange theory, and in somewhat disagreement with the Cannon-Bard theory, this is the Schachter-Singer two factor theory. The Schachter-Singer theory, developed by Jerome Singer and Stanley Schachter is based on two components: a cognitive label and physical arousal. This idea highlights the interaction between physiological arousal and the identification we give to said arousal. Moreover, we must not only feel aroused, but also label the feeling we face in order to have the emotion related to it. For example, imagine a car slowly following you on your walk home from work; your heart would race, and your hands may begin to shake.

You acknowledge that those bodily reactions are cause by panic, so you become fearful. This two-factor process starts with a stimulus, then turns into a physical response that once labeled will become an emotion. This theory was placed to the test in 1962, when these researchers gathered a group of 184 male volunteers and injected them with a hormone related to arousal, called epinephrine. They were told that the study was for eyesight, and some were told that the injection may result in side effects. This experiment showed that those expecting the side effects were less susceptible to the impacts of the epinephrine than the group not aware of potential side effects. Some researchers will argue that we have the potential to experience an emotion before thinking or even identifying that emotion. Other researchers still argue that there are biological variations in different emotions, on par with the James-Lange theory.

Despite all these theories, its difficult to identify one as the law for emotional experience. Each individual is bound to experience and interpret their feelings in unique ways, making it hard to form one universal theory of emotion. Also, not all of the feelings we display are actually being felt. Surface acting describes the method in which we display an emotion without actually feeling it. This becomes convenient when telling your grandma how much you “love” the knit beanie she quilted you, even if you don’t at all like it. There’s a more in depth version of this method known as deep acting which is where people alter their internal emotions in order to appropriately behave in a specific situation.

This is seen frequently in the workplace where people are required to maintain an appearance for their job. It gets even more abstract when we discuss the actual emotions versus ones that are feigned or faked. Some of the basic emotions include gratitude, envy, love, and anger, and when these aren’t well taught to a kid, they will face difficulties in the future when attempting to exhibit that feeling or even when pretending to feel that specific way. According to Reeve “When children learn from adults about emotions, most of what they learn falls under the rubrics of emotion knowledge, expression management, and emotion control.” Pollak and Reeve would both agree that an adult’s parenting has a massive effect on the child’s overall potential of handling emotions.

When children aren’t correctly taught how to interpret and display their own feelings, they become less able to relate to anyone else. Pollak and Thoits did a study on emotional socialization in children aged 3-5 in a school for emotionally disturbed kids. Here teacher-therapists were very verbal in trying to help the kids define and identify associations with feelings and actions, especially after a case of the kid exhibiting their own “socially inappropriate feeling or feeling displays”. These kids didn’t have the right guidance to teach them these tools when they were originally being raised, so they are being taught later. These kids suffer from difficulties in expressing emotions whether they are pretend, or real. Say one of these kids was gifted with a lemon for his birthday, without knowing how to properly portray the feeling of gratitude, he may end up lashing out or crying rather than pretending to be thankful. This comes from a lack of being told what was right or wrong/ appropriate or inappropriate for a specific situation.

These ideas become even more complex when we take culture into account. Each individual’s unique background gives us a separate perspective on how to interpret particular situations. Westernized countries deal and manage their emotions much differently than that of more traditional, collectivist countries. This is because cultures vary drastically and have many differences in expectations or standards for certain events. Reeve addresses this by pointing out a major difference in individualistic versus collectivistic cultures in terms of satisfaction with a child’s progress. “Three-year-old Danny… places a [puzzle] piece in its correct location… Danny claps his hands, after which his mother applauds and says, ‘That’s great!’.” Here an American child is verbally praised for his success with putting a puzzle piece in its appropriate location. Next we have an example from China, “Mother asks 3-year-old Lin to sind a song for guests. After she finishes, … the guests say, ‘Wonderful! You sing nicer than my child!’ Mother replies, ‘… she is O.K. Her voice is kind of off the tune though’.” Here, Lin’s mother refuses to express satisfaction because people in China are taught to never be content with the progress you’ve made and are always pushed to strive for more. Years of this practice “lead Chinese children to harmonize the self with others through self-effacement” (Reeve) Whereas years of American socialization taught kids to take full pride in their achievements and accomplishments.

In my life, I know I comprehend and interpret my emotions much different than the person next to me. All human feelings and learned emotions develop in certain cultural conditions, therefore they are understood best in that specific cultural context. I am a European American which has an effect on the way I choose to manage my emotions. European Americans are noted to become heavily distracted or weighed on by emotional events (such as a speeding ticket) and we are known to recover from these minor events at a much slower pace than someone who is from a more traditional country, like Japan. I hold onto small things and it takes me a lot to let them out of my head, this stuff adds up and takes a large toll in my everyday life. This is the same case for many other European Americans just like me. Despite getting worked up over minor issues, the European American culture is reportedly more happy on a day to day basis than countries who are harder on themselves, like Korea and Japan.

All in all, cultures and cultural theories both play a big role in explaining how we learn to interpret and display out learned emotions. The theories of emotion support little evidence on influence of culture on emotional experience, but psychologists have come to agree on a specific set of ideas: that human emotions are universal, and although culture may have an effect on the way we manage our emotions, similar emotions exist in all cultures, so we are all experiencing the same feelings despite the way we construe them.


  1. Pollak, Lauren Harte, and Peggy A. Thoits. “Processes in Emotional Socialization.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 1, 1989, p. 22., doi:10.2307/2786901.
  2. Reeve, Johnmarshall, and Glen Nix. Motivation and Emotion, vol. 21, no. 3, 1997, pp. 237–250., doi:10.1023/a:1024470213500.
  3. Shiraev, Eric, and David A. Levy. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Critical Thinking and Contemporary Applications. Routledge, 2017.

Cite this paper

Culture and Emotions. (2021, Jul 27). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/culture-and-emotions/



Are emotions dependent on culture?
Since culture shapes how we think and act, it also influences our emotions. So while emotions are not entirely dependent on culture, they are certainly influenced by it.
What do we know about culture and emotion?
Culture plays a role in emotion by shaping how we express ourselves and how we interact with others. Emotion also varies between cultures, with some emphasizing more positive emotions and others focusing on negative emotions.
Why our emotions are cultural?
Our emotions are cultural because they are shaped by the societies we live in. They are also cultural because they vary from one culture to another.
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