How Are You Feeling? part 2

The faces pictured above are stereotypes of faces representing six emotions. And they are problematic in the way that stereotypes are: in the attempt to abstract or summarize, they misrepresent the complex reality. These aren’t pictures of people who were feeling the emotion supposedly pictured. They’re people who were told to show an assigned emotion, so they displayed the stereotype.

In reality, people who are angry have all kinds of facial configurations. Maybe sometimes you quietly seethe. Other times you might be scream and shout – which would look more like an open mouth than a very tight-lipped closed mouth.

If professional actors made faces like the ones pictured above, we’d think either that their character was being campy, or that they were ham actors.

Even if these facial configurations were a sort of average of the various ways that sadness or surprise might manifest – which they aren’t, really -- there’s something to remember about the way averages work. The average human being has one ovary. That’s the average, though of course very few people actually have exactly one. Almost everyone has either two or none, which averages to one, but what’s average may be far from what’s typical.

In real life, if you saw someone with the "surprise" face shown here, or the "fear" face, or any of them, you’d be more likely to think they were mocking the feeling than that they were authentically feeling it. Careful studies measuring facial muscle movements find that there is no facial configuration and no part of a facial configuration that all angry people display. Nor is there any part of a facial configuration that only angry people display. Sometimes those pursed, tight lips are just someone thinking hard about something.

When Eckman showed pictures like these to people in remote cultures, he didn’t just say: What’s this person feeling? He presented the question as multiple choice: Choose the word that best matches the face – and the options were limited to Eckman’s six. They might not have been the emotions that in that culture were the most central or primary. If there were a culture in which chiplessness was central and primary to their way of understanding themselves, members of that culture would not have found chipless an available option.

In cultures that didn’t speak English, Eckman had to use translations of the English words, even if close matches to the English word didn’t exist in the other language. The !Kung people of the Kalahari don’t have any word for Fear. They certainly feel the heightened adrenaline from an immediately imposed danger, and they will flee from it, and we would characterize them as afraid, but that’s not how they think of themselves – and since part of the experience of fear is recognizing “this is fear” – they don’t have the experience that we have.
“Utka Eskimos have no concept of ‘Anger.’ The Tahitian have no concept of ‘Sadness’.” (148)
That Psychology Today column I was citing, right after so confidently asserting, “Primary emotions are universal and innate” then says, “A smile is recognized in all cultures as a signal of happiness and social welcome.” Um. No. Here’s what L.F. Barrett says about that:
“For one thing, ‘Happiness’ is usually the only pleasant emotion category that is tested using the basic emotion method, so it’s trivial for subjects to distinguish it from the negative categories. And consider this fun fact: The historical record implies that ancient Romans did not smile spontaneously when they were happy. The word ‘smile’ doesn’t even exist in Latin. Smiling was an invention of the Middle Ages, and broad, toothy-mouthed smiles became popular only in the eighteenth century as dentistry became more eccessible and affordable.”
Classics scholar Mary Beard adds:
“This is not to say that Romans never curled up the edges of their mouths in a formation that would look to us much like a smile; of course they did. But such curling did not mean very much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures in Rome. Conversely, other gestures, which would mean little to us, were much more heavily freighted with significance.”
Thus, Barrett concludes,
“So far as I know, no emotion concept is universal, but even if one were, universality itself does not automatically imply a perceiver-independent reality.”
Take, for example, magical little people – called nymphs in ancient Greece, leprechauns in Ireland, brownies in Scotland, fairies in Celtic legend, Menehune in Native Hawaiian folklore, trolls in Scandinavia, Aziza in Africa, Agloolik in Inuit culture, Mimis in Aboriginal Australia, Shin from China, Kami from Japan. Even if magical little people were part of every single human culture on earth, that wouldn’t mean they were a perceiver-independent reality like atoms, rocks, and trees.

I’m not saying emotions aren’t real. I’m saying they’re cultural. They’re very real – like money – which also isn’t a perceiver-independent reality, but which depends on the social agreement of a given society.

You can have high or low arousal without any concept of high or low arousal, and some things are attractive and other things aversive even if you don’t conceptualize them so, but everything else in the area of emotion depends on having the concept, and concepts are learned features of a culture. Not all cultures have the emotion concepts of English-speaking cultures. Instead, they may have others. English has recently appropriated the German schadenfreude – pleasure at the misfortune of a rival. Others we might consider appropriating include:
  • fiero (from Italian): the enjoyment felt when you have met a challenge that stretched your capabilities
  • naches (Yiddish): feelings of pride in the accomplishments, or sometimes just the existence, of your offspring or mentees
  • gezellig (Dutch): a specific experience of comfort with friends
  • voorpret (Dutch): pleasure felt about an event before the event takes place – a delighted anticipation
  • stenahoria (Greek): a feeling of doom, hopelessness, suffocation, and constriction (Perhaps you can think of some romantic relationship where this emotion concept would come in handy.)
  • jeong (Korean): happiness specifically from attachment to a close friend
  • liget (Ilongot, a headhunting tribe from the Philippines): exuberant aggression involving intense focus, passion, and energy while pursuing a hazardous challenge with a group of people (Sounds similar to recently developed emotion concept in our culture that we call putting your game face on.)
  • gigil (Filipino): the urge to hug or squeeze something that is unbearably adorable
  • forelsket (Norwegian): an intense joy of falling in love
  • hygge (Danish): a certain feeling of close friendship
  • tokka (Russian): a spiritual anguish
  • saudade (Portuguese): a strong spiritual longing
  • pena ajena (Spanish): sadness over another person’s loss, or discomfort or embarrassment on someone else’s behalf
  • arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): the feeling that someone has done you a favor that you didn’t want from them, and which may have caused difficulty for you, but you’re required to be grateful anyway (Doesn’t that sound very Japanese? The culture is its concepts, and the concepts for the way we feel – plus the physiological sensations we are interpreting – ARE the emotion.)
  • age-otori (Japanese): the feeling of looking worse after a haircut
Other cultures mix and match emotion categories differently:
  • fago (Ifaluk, of Micronesia): depending on context, can mean love, empathy, pity, sadness, or compassion
  • litost (Czech) torment over one’s own misery combined with the desire for revenge
We might want to revive twitterpated from the 1942 cartoon movie, Bambi. Twitterpated, like chipless, is a made-up emotion – but they’re all made-up. That's Barrett's point: all emotions are made-up by members of a given culture. Only those two scales I mentioned (arousal-nonarousal, and attraction-aversion) are biological. The rest of your emotional life is cultural habits of interpretation of, and projection onto, your awareness of your biology.

As we work through the meaning of this new understanding of emotion it’s going to have wide implications. It’s going to have legal implications. Like, we can’t tell what remorse is. Remorse is a cultural product, and some cultures have very different expressions for it, or don’t have the concept at all. So the notion of remorsefulness in criminal sentencing is problematic – yet juries decide on life imprisonment as opposed to the death sentence in part on whether the defendant feels remorse.

This is Dzokhar Tsarnaev of Chechnia, the suriving bomber of the 2013 Boston Marathon bomb. He was sentenced to death in 2015. “Tsarnaev spoke words of apology, but when [jurors] looked at his face, all they saw was this stone-faced stare.” If L.F. Barrett is right, then
“jurors do not and cannot detect remorse or any other emotion in anybody ever. Neither can I and neither can you....That might be someone who is a remorseless killer, but a stone-faced stare might also mean that someone is stoically accepting defeat, which is in fact what Chechen culture prescribes for someone in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's situation.”
There’s solid reson to believe Dzokhar Tsarnaev committed the acts of which he was accused. There is no basis for saying that he was remorseless -- or that he wasn't.

There’s a lot more to say about how to understand emotions, but it’s going to have to wait for future services. For now, I just have two take-aways I want to offer you.

One: learn more emotion concepts. Emotional granularity – having a higher vocabulary of emotion words – is healthy for you. The ability to speak and think with greater precision is a brain efficiency for navigating your reality – and we humans have created a fantastically complex social reality for ourselves, so your brain needs all the efficiency it can get.

Second, whatever you’re feeling, you don’t have to take it so seriously. And particularly don’t take seriously your interpretation of what you think other people are feeling. Talk to people and ask them about what they’re feeling – don’t assume. Emotions are social, so be sociable with them and about them.

Blessed be. Amen.

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