Distinguished Lecture: How Does Culture Shape Our Feelings?

By Lydia Itoi, Journalist and Bing Parent


If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands
If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it…

Every Bing child knows this song, and everybody wants to be happy. But is it written all over our faces in a way everyone can understand?

On May 6, 2015, Stanford psychology professor and Bing parent Jeanne Tsai, PhD, presented her research on happiness before a packed East Room in this year’s Bing Distinguished Lecture. Turns out, universal happiness is not as simple as clapping your hands.

Tsai is director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab and has been fascinated by questions of culture and psychology from her own days as a happy-go-lucky Stanford undergrad. In the engaging style that has won her student popularity and teaching awards, she delivered a thought-provoking, entertaining lecture on how culture influences how we view happiness.

The research she presented, some of which was done here at Bing, gave these insights into the nature of human happiness:
1. How we actually feel is different from how we ideally want to feel.
2. Our ideal definition of happiness is influenced by our cultural environment at an early age and changes over time.
3. Our culturally defined ideas about happiness play a central role in our lives and the way we see the world.

Sadly, Tsai explains, most of us don’t actually feel (what Tsai calls “actual affect”) as happy as we ideally want to feel (“ideal affect”), but what we want to feel is culturally defined. It turns out we learn to want different things depending on our cultural environment. Culture therefore plays a huge role in forming our ideal affect and in determining our choices, conscious or unconscious. It invisibly influences lots of things that we do to feel good: our choice of consumer products, vacations, leisure activities, even our choice of doctors or friends. Culturally influenced ideal affect can also influence who we choose as our leaders, how we define health and happiness, or how we perceive others.

Finding The Cultural Emotional Gap
Tsai first became interested in the study of how culture shapes emotions when the psychological theories she studied at Stanford and Berkeley in the 1990s did not seem to fit her experience as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Given that most psychological studies were conducted by Western Europeans on Western European populations, this comes as no surprise. “The few [empirical psychological] studies that existed on Japanese and Chinese would talk about East Asians as being inscrutable… but then that didn’t ring true to my experience either,” she laughs. “I knew when my parents were angry or upset. And when I talked about it, my parents would say, ‘Oh, no, Jeanne, that’s not right. Americans are the ones who are hard to read.’”

At first, Tsai found little empirical evidence but plentiful anecdotal reports and literary examples of cultural difference in emotion. “People often experience a disconnect when trying to interact with a person from a different culture,” Tsai points out.

Anthropological studies have also described this cultural difference in emotions, with ethnographic studies indicating that emotions might be purely cultural constructions. Some even implied that emotions are impossible to understand from another cultural perspective. But while these studies richly described the emotional differences between cultures in specific contexts, they did little to explain them. This job called for psychology’s tool kit.

Affect Valuation Theory
But when Tsai first began conducting her own research by bringing people from various cultural backgrounds into the psychology lab, she and her Berkeley graduate advisor Robert Levenson, PhD, still could not find any empirical evidence of cultural influence on emotions. They had European-American and Asian-American people come in and try to experience emotions in a lab setting by watching emotional movies and reminiscing about evocative times in their lives. Dating couples would come in to have emotionally charged discussions about their relationships, on topics such as jealousy and sex, while researchers measured their physiological responses, administered self-report questionnaires and videotaped body language. The initial results showed few differences in the emotional responses between the European-American and Asian-American groups.

So how to reconcile the difference between the ethnographical evidence of cultural emotional difference and the psychological results showing that we are basically feeling the same inside? The answer might be that they are describing two different aspects of emotion. The anthropological studies might describe what people ideally want to feel (their ideal affect), while the psychological results might reveal what they actually feel, or actual affect. Tsai’s subsequent research attempts to refine what we actually mean by “happiness” in what she calls affect valuation theory.

Tsai began changing the questions she asked, interviewing European-American, Asian-American and Hong Kong Chinese college students about what emotional state they would ideally like to have. Most of the responses fell into two categories:

European-American college student: “I just want to be happy. Normally for me that means I would be doing something exciting. I just want to be entertained. … I just like excitement.”

Hong Kong Chinese college student: “My ideal state is to be quiet, serene, happy and positive.”

Maybe ideal happiness does not mean the same thing to everyone after all. Tsai et al. began developing a more nuanced emotional graph, plotting ideal feelings along two axes: positive (happy, content) and negative (sad, lonely), high arousal (active, impassioned) and low arousal (passive, dull) emotional states. This grid provides a tool to measure and compare emotions across cultures.

In short, everybody wants to be happy, but the specific state associated with happiness differs, and it seems to be heavily influenced by the cultural environment. Both European-Americans and East Asians valued positive emotional states, but European-Americans largely preferred high arousal positive states like excitement, elation and euphoria while East Asians largely reported a preference for low arousal positive states like peace, relaxation and calm. Asian-Americans fell somewhere in between. “Americans have to say they’re doing GREAT!” Tsai points out, “If you are only fine, people think you’re depressed. You have to be very excited about your life.”  

But even if people across cultures aspire to different ideal emotional states, on average, everybody reports they want to feel more positive than they actually feel.

Ideal Affect and Cultural Messages
Tsai focuses her study on locating the differences in ideal affect between Western European-American populations, East Asian-American populations and East Asian populations. One has to start somewhere, but even within these specific populations, Tsai acknowledges a wide diversity in cultural emotional responses. Midwesterners of Scandinavian descent, for example, tend to prefer high arousal positive states less than their fourth-generation Irish-American counterparts. 

Tsai’s research so far does not take into account socio-economic factors (most subjects come from college-educated, middle-class backgrounds), religious differences, or other ethnic groups. The study of human happiness remains wide open.

That said, within those specific target populations, Tsai reports that European-Americans show a marked preference for excited faces, while East Asians, and Asian-Americans to a lesser degree, generally prefer the calmer faces.

In her search for more empirical evidence to support this theory that culture influences ideal affect, Tsai compared everything from ads in women’s magazines to Facebook profiles and photos of successful CEOs, politicians and other public figures. The researchers measured and coded facial expressions for levels of excitement or calm, and they found that profile photos generally project the ideal affect of their culture. European-American photos featured broad smiles of people jumping off cliffs or doing other exciting stunts, while Asian and Asian-American selfies showed relatively calmer expressions and activities.

These cultural messages are reinforced by advertising and product marketing,  reflecting the dominant culture’s ideal affect. Ads targeting American markets emphasize energy, excitement and promise a more pumped-up existence. Tsai showed examples of everything from baby play gyms covered with bells and whistles to Kellogg’s ads for seniors encouraging active living. (“Living well and feeling great! Regular exercise and staying active support a healthy lifestyle, keep you energized, fit, and feeling great. See back for some exciting products!!”) Ads in Asian magazines promise serenity and peace, with soothing colors, expressions and images.

Tsai acknowledges that Americans can value calm at times and East Asians can value excitement, but the difference is in degree. Yoga has become a popular American pastime, but more often than not it becomes power yoga. Hong Kong theme parks have roller coasters, but on the periphery and with no long lines.

Ideal Affect Over Time
If ideal affect is really cultural, when is it acquired, and how do children learn to display emotion? Studies conducted in 2007 at Bing show that these cultural differences begin very early. European-American and Asian-American Bing students and Taiwanese Chinese preschool students between the ages of 3 and 5 were already exhibiting different reactions to the following questions:

Which one would you rather be?
Which one is more happy?

European-Americans liked and wanted to emulate the broad, open-mouthed smile, while Taiwanese children preferred the closed-mouth smile. Asian-American children fell in the middle.

The same results came back when children were given an example of excited water play and calm water play and asked to choose what they would like to do: Even correcting for the temperament of individual subjects, European-American children preferred the splashing and jumping, Taiwanese liked the idea of floating in the pool, while Asian-Americans fell in between.

Tsai then compared the bestselling U.S. storybooks of 2005, including Where the Wild Things Are, to the Taiwanese bestselling storybooks, including The Story of February. Coding the emotions expressed by the characters in the books based on excited or calm facial expression, the widths of the smiles relative to the size of the faces, and activity arousal on a scale from 1 to 3, the researchers found that the characters in the U.S. storybooks exhibited bigger, more excited smiles and engaged in more highly arousing activities than those in the Taiwanese storybooks.

The current Bing study, in which children of different backgrounds are shown excited, calm and neutral faces, shows that ideal affect is acquired very early and can affect choices. Children who wanted to have the excited face themselves wanted to sit with a child that matched that emotion, while children who wanted to have the calm face also wanted to sit next to a calm child.

Other findings suggest that a child’s ideal affect can change depending on exposure to cultural messages. Children who heard an exciting story chose the excited face and vice versa. Tsai suggests that chronic exposure to different cultural messages can change one’s ideal affect.
Ideal affect can also change over a lifetime. Although European-Americans at 60 value high-arousal positive states as much as they do at 40, Asian Americans and Hong Kong Chinese show a dramatic shift in ideal affect: At 60 they crave excitement much less they do at age 40.

Ideal Affect and You
Beneath Tsai’s high-energy, decidedly high arousal positive speaking style, there ran a quiet current of serious implications for people’s lives.

Culture’s influence on our thoughts and desires is largely invisible. Therefore, when we are acting according to our culturally programmed preferences, this can have a huge impact on our choices, our behavior and even the way we perceive others. It affects what we choose to buy, the kind of vacations we take or who we sit next to in the cafeteria.

This is not a problem if everyone is coming from same cultural context, but it becomes a problem in multicultural societies: There is always the possibility we might be reading people the wrong way.
Culture is insidious. How friendly or likeable someone seems to you depends on how well they match your ideal affect. Culture is so automatic you assume your judgment is about the person, not about how well they match your emotional aspirations. If you prefer excitement states, you identify with animated faces more, want to interact with them more and find them more rewarding, knowledgeable and trustworthy. You might not even notice a calm face.

The implications are profound. We choose a doctor based on how well the physician matches our ideal affect, not just on their medical qualifications. Doctors, being human, also subconsciously respond to patients depending on how well the patient fits the doctor’s ideal affect. Preliminary studies suggest that a physician might pay more attention to a patient that matches their ideal affect, even ordering more tests. The same dynamic probably applies to teachers and students, bosses and employees. People are humans, and humans like people who match their ideal.

Cultural differences in ideal affect can seep into the assessment and treatment of depression. Asians and Asian-Americans are less likely to seek mental health treatment, but when they do, they often run into a cultural mismatch with European-American clinicians, who are likely to view depression as an absence of high-arousal positive feelings.

Differences in ideal affect might influence who gets chosen for leadership positions and promotions. Tsai mentioned the “bamboo ceiling,” a phenomenon where Asian-Americans rise to the midlevel of management but rarely higher. Employers will say, “I’d love to hire an Asian-American CEO, but it seems like they just don’t have what it takes to lead.” People don’t say, “They don’t match my cultural ideal.” They say, “They don’t have it.”  She argues that “it” is an emotional match.

Embracing Happiness
Many of Tsai’s study subjects were Stanford students, and when asked about the happiest moment of their lives, they usually mentioned getting into Stanford or winning a big competition or some other once-in-a-lifetime highly emotional moment.

Asian research subjects would equate happiness with more everyday moments, like enjoying a good book or going for a walk. Is one group happier than another? Research results indicate that older Hong Kong Chinese adults are on the whole more satisfied with their lives than European-American older adults. Perhaps it is because they have learned to moderate their expectations and accept their circumstances. Tsai likes the idea of having big aspirations, but she wonders whether it leads to too much stress because often these big aspirations are accompanied by unrealistic expectations. Does having more achievable standards of happiness and adjusting your ideal affect lead to more frequent moments of satisfaction? Food for thought.

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

—from the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams