Can Westerners understand emotions from a remote culture?

ResearchBlogging.orgClassical Indian dancing is a tradition that extends back 2,000 years. Unlike much Western dance, it is intended to express specific emotions and tell detailed stories. The Natyasastra, a text from the first or second century A.D., offers instructions for how to depict nine primary emotions, and these rules continue to be followed in Indian Classical dance today. This movie demonstrates one form of Indian Classical dance:

As you can see, each gesture has a highly-specific meaning, which, to my eyes, at least, isn't obvious. Yet much research has shown that many emotions share "universal" characteristics. Smiles and frowns seem to be recognized as positive and negative expressions nearly everywhere. So what about the traditional emotions of Indian dance? Can people who've never been exposed to the dances still understand the emotions the dancers intend to express?

In 2000, Ahalya Hejmadi, Richard Davidson, and Paul Rozin showed videos of a dancer (Hejmadi herself) depicting 10 emotions using Indian dance to 48 Americans and 47 Indians. (The emotions depicted were Anger, Disgust, Fear, Heroism, Humor, Love, Peace, Sadness, Lajya -- shame/embarrassment/shyness, and Wonder) Half the viewers were given a list of possible emotions and asked to pick which one was being depicted. The other half were asked to simply write a word or words to describe the emotion being depicted. A total of 30 videos were shown, three for each emotion.

On the multiple-choice task, there was no significant difference in the Americans' score and the Indians' score: As an aggregate, Americans picked the intended emotion most frequently for 27 of the 30 responses, while Indians picked it 30 out of 30 times. Individually, Americans averaged 16 of 30 correct, while Indians again didn't do significantly better, picking 16.3 out of 30. In both cases, the results can't be explained by chance. With 11 choices for each emotion (the 10 emotions plus "none"), random guessing would yield a score lower than 3.

In the free-response test, in aggregate, both Americans and Indians provided the correct emotion more frequently than any other for every performance. Individually, Americans averaged 12.1 correct responses while Indians averaged 17. So Indians performed significantly better than Americans on this test, but again, everyone did much better than they would have if they had simply guessed.

Hejmadi's team says this result is an important extension of the idea of "universal emotions." While most studies of perception of emotions focus on facial expression, in this study, viewers saw full-body expressions of emotion, and were still very successful at identifying the intended emotion.

Hejmadi, A., Davidson, R., & Rozin, P. (2000). Exploring Hindu Indian Emotion Expressions: Evidence for Accurate Recognition by Americans and Indians Psychological Science, 11 (3), 183-187 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00239

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You should definitely check out the work Manfred Clynes has done -- trying to establish connections between physiology and experienced emotions, especially in music. Very interesting stuff.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

Are Peace and Heroism emotions? It may be that each culture tends to layer other kinds of narrative on top of more primal emotions.

If what the study participants were shown is anything like what it is in the video, then I'd say that it would be more interesting to have them seeing only the dancer's silhoutte, because her facial expressions give almost everything away.

Being an Indian, Am a little sad to see that the Indians did not do significantly better than the Americans. However, this research in a way shows to me that we are now a truly global citizens, with not much real difference in even those that we ancestrally owned. :-)

How about understanding emotions from a major member of the world community?

I'm constantly thrown by the way kids in my school in Japan express emotions in drawings - when doing the cover for the booklet for the annual 'cheering event' the cheerleader on the cover looks so pissed that he's going to kill someone. In actuality he's just 'totally in the cheering groove'.

A local sushi chain has the glum looking character of a sushi maker as it's symbol. He's not glum though - he's concentrating so much on making perfect sushi that he isn't smiling.

Part of not understanding might be that it is a dance language with gestures that are not used otherwise. Ballet is western and has lots of specific gestures that mean specific things that may not be correctly interpreted by westerners that don't watch ballets. For example, a hand tracing a tight circle around one's face means that the gesturing dancer thinks another dancer is beautiful, pretty -- very specific, but not blatantly obvious.

I wonder if the researchers did anything to prevent viewers from using the dancer's facial expression to detect the emotion. I imagine that if the dancer is trying to express an emotion and is trying to feel it, then it would be expressed on the face as well.

Fascinating study. However, one question comes to mind. Are the subjects really reading emotion in the facial/bodily gestures of the dancer? Or are they trying to read emotional simulation (the dancer may or may not be employing simulation techniques in an *attempt* to experience the emotion being expressed) and/or folk beliefs about the gestural communication of emotion (which may or may not be accurate). I ask this because a universalist (or near-universalist) theory of the basic emotions (I'm thinking of Ekman and Friesen) study the expression of actually experienced emotions (and this expression is considered beyond conscious control). So, while this study is really interesting, I'm not convinced that it contributes much to the question of the universality of emotional expression via gesture.