Cultural modes of expressing emotions influence how emotions are experienced

Emotion. 2016 Oct;16(7):1033-9. doi: 10.1037/emo0000201. Epub 2016 Jun 6.


The brain's mapping of bodily responses during emotion contributes to emotional experiences, or feelings. Culture influences emotional expressiveness, that is, the magnitude of individuals' bodily responses during emotion. So, are cultural influences on behavioral expressiveness associated with differences in how individuals experience emotion? Chinese and American young adults reported how strongly admiration- and compassion-inducing stories made them feel, first in a private interview and then during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As expected, Americans were more expressive in the interview. Although expressiveness did not predict stronger reported feelings or neural responses during fMRI, in both cultural groups more-expressive people showed tighter trial-by-trial correlations between their experienced strength of emotion and activations in visceral-somatosensory cortex, even after controlling for individuals' overall strength of reactions (neural and felt). Moreover, expressiveness mediated a previously described cultural effect in which activations in visceral-somatosensory cortex correlated with feeling strength among Americans but not among Chinese. Post hoc supplementary analyses revealed that more-expressive individuals reached peak activation of visceral-somatosensory cortex later in the emotion process and took longer to decide how strongly they felt. The results together suggest that differences in expressiveness correspond to differences in how somatosensory mechanisms contribute to constructing conscious feelings. By influencing expressiveness, culture may therefore influence how individuals know how strongly they feel, what conscious feelings are based on, or possibly what strong versus weak emotions "feel like." (PsycINFO Database Record

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Culture
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Young Adult