Wednesday, 22 March 2017


Interesting article on emotions, and how we can train them.
Emotions are not universal – we build them for ourselves 
Japan has arigata-meiwaku, the negative feeling when someone does you a favour that you didn’t want, are perhaps inconvenienced by, yet must still be grateful for.

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Update 23 March 2017:
A commenter says this article is behind a paywall. I didn't realise, as I subscribe to New Scientist.

So I'll provide a few more representative quotes.

Emotions are not hard-wired and universal:
If you look at the literature on facial expressions, most studies that support universality use a kind of psychological cheat – experimenters might force subjects to pick from a small set of emotion words when shown a facial expression, or unwittingly train subjects in the appropriate emotion concepts. 
My lab and others have shown that if you remove these cues, say, by asking subjects what a face means without a list of words to choose from, the whole effect falls apart. 
Thinking that they are causes damage to people:
The example that really gets me is the training of autistic children to recognise the stereotyped expressions stipulated by the classical view. This training is supposed to improve children’s social functioning. But nothing changes for these kids because these facial expressions don’t generalise outside the lab. 
Huge amounts of money are being spent on technology rooted in the idea that facial expressions are universal. For example, the US Transportation Security Administration spent $900 million on a method of reading faces and bodies that is rooted in the classical view. It didn’t work.
It's an incorrect stereotype:
... this stereotype is extremely damaging – there is evidence that when you refer to a woman as emotional, it usually means too emotional. So there’s a catch-22: if a woman is emotional, she’s seen as childish or out of control. If she’s not emotional enough – she defies the stereotype – she’s seen as a cold, untrustworthy bitch. For men the rules are not so strict. This is a real problem in courtrooms. There are people who can’t get a fair trial because jurors – and judges – accept the stereotype and believe that, generally, emotions can be easily read.
Reconstructing our own emotions can help us:
a student preparing for a test will be in a high arousal state. They might experience this arousal as anxiety, but they could learn to recategorise it as determination, which research shows will allow them to perform better on tests. This recategorisation can reduce stress, so they feel physically better too.
And there's a book:
Lisa Feldman Barrett. How Emotions are Made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017 


  1. Ugh, paywall. So this may not be relevant. However, FWIW arigata-meiwaku is not some exotic new emotion really; it's a perfectly natural and understandable emotional response given the way that Japanese society works. The key concept is "giri", "obligation." If I do you a favour, it's not enough for you just to be appropriately grateful: you *owe* me one. In this sort of context, it's eminently understandable that you might not be thrilled to be put under an obligation in return for some unsolicited favour that perhaps wasn't all that appropriate or helpful in the first place. (The article may perhaps explain all that anyway ...)

    1. Sorry -- didn't realise about the paywall. I've added some more quotes, for context. The Japanese quote was more of a "hook" than the main point of the article.

    2. Thanks! Looks interesting, if a bit overstating the case (not that I'm any kind of expert.) I've lived in some fairly exotic places, and while I am sure I often misinterpreted facial expressions (and much else) there was assuredly a great deal that was familiar. But presumably the article doesn't claim that *all* facial expressions are culturally determined, any more than all emotions are.
      Might have to take the extreme step of actually buying a copy of New Scientist ...