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The nature and nurture of emotions.

The nature and nurture of emotions

When members of the Minangkabau culture in Western Sumatra, Indonesia, voluntarily make facial expressions of fear, anger, sadness or disgust, they experience the same basic physiological changes and the same emotional feelings as Americans, two California psychologists report. The researchers suggest this means the physiological changes accompanying certain emotions are genetically -- rather than culturally -- determined.

"Our assumption is these [physiological reactions] are biologically based and hard-wired," says Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). "Culture may magnify or diminish emotional reactions, but will neither eliminate nor replace them."

Ekman and Robert W. Levenson of the University of California, Berkeley, report what they describe as the first cross-cultural study of how facial expression relates to the physiology of emotion. Psychologists have long debated the role of nature and nurture in emotion, but "there has been little debate whether changes in the autonomic nervous system are universal," Ekman says.

In 1983, Ekman, Levenson and Wallace V. Friesen of UCSF discovered that when Americans make facial expressions voluntarily, this generates involuntary autonomic nervous system activity (SN:9/17/83, p.182). Simulating an expression of anger or sadness increases the heart rate; forming an expression of disgust lowers it.

With the assistance of anthropologist Karl G. Heider of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, who is conducting his own long-term study of emotions in Indonesia, Ekman and Levenson asked 46 Minangkabau males, ages 17 to 28, to make specific facial expressions and recorded their physiological responses, including heart rate, skin temperature, and speed and depth of breathing. Previous studies of people from nine different cultures had established that all nine associated the same expressions with specific emotions.

"The magnitude of the [physiological] changes is smaller for Sumatrans than for Americans," Levenson says, but the pattern of changes in fear, anger, sadness and disgust for the two cultures proved the same.

The researchers asked the young men to imagine some emotional experience -- something disgusting, for example -- and quizzed them about their feeling at the peak of their image. "We have found it isn't just the look on the face, but the feelings inside that people share," Ekman says. "It is the first evidence of the universality of autonomic nervous system pattern."

The study also indicates that culture strongly influences whether and how people talk about or show their emotions, and even what produces an emotional response. For instance, Ekman notes, "what is perceived as a threat may vary from culture to culture."
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Title Annotation:universality of facial expressions
Author:Young, Patrick
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 28, 1989
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