Are Emotions Cultural Constructs?

There is fairly wide agreement among scientists that some subcategory of moods and emotions have an evolutionary basis: they are variants on moods and emotions that helped our distant ancestors pass on their genetic material through evolutionary mechanisms. The disagreement concerns which mood and emotions belong to this class and whether any moods and emotions completely lack an evolutionary basis but are predominantly a result of historically significant movements, cultural customs or social hierarchies.

Basic and Complex Emotions

Following the work of psychologist Paul Ekman (1992), it is common to divide emotions (and mood) into basic (or simple) and complex (non-basic). The basic emotions are joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. Jealousy, love, guilt, grief, and pride are examples of complex emotions.

The basic emotions can combine (synchronically or diachronically) with each other as well as additional psychological or bodily states to form complex emotions that are far from always associated with a universally recognizable facial expression. For example, contempt is a mixture of anger and disgust, and a standard form of grief is a mixture of surprise, sadness, anger and other elements, such as denial, bargaining and acceptance.

Basic emotions are so-called because they are associated with distinct and universally recognizable facial expressions (Ekman & Friesen, 1971). When people experience surprise, for example, their brows arch, their eyes are open wide to expose more white and their jaw drops slightly. When people experience disgust, their upper lip is raised, their nose bridge is wrinkled and their cheeks are raised.

Emotions and moods can be hard to distinguish. However, a commonly adopted distinction is this. Emotions are about, or directed at, some specific thing or event in the external world, For example, the emotion of anger may be directed at Jack and not Jill. Moods, on the other hand, are not directed at anything specific. They may well have a cause but they are felt as being free-floating. For instance, depression may be caused by a traumatic childhood but it may be felt as mental (and or bodily) symptoms that just occur for no apparent reason, such as the feeling that nothing is fun anymore.  and morning grumpiness, afternoon fatigue and restlessness are examples of complex moods.

Ekman did not directly address moods but, as we just characterized them, it seems that many of Ekman’s basic emotions have mood equivalents. Joy, sadness and fear, for instance, can certainly occur in a free-floating form, i.e., without being directed at any specific thing or event in the external world. Some anxiety disorders involve free-floating fear, for instance, fear manifested as an inner mental irritation with no apparent cause. We can thus expect that the moods, like the emotions, can be basic (and thus associated with universally recognized facial expressions) or complex (involving many components some of which are basic moods).

The Evolutionary Basis of Emotions

As noted, the standard criterion for classifying some emotions as basic is based on the finding that they are associated with universally recognizable facial expressions. This is a strong indicator of them having been evolutionarily advantageous (or adaptive). In spite of the fact that complex emotions and moods need not be associated with a universally recognized facial expression, most scientists hold that many of them have an evolutionary basis too.

As an example, consider jealousy. A popular evolutionary explanation of why we experience this emotion in romantic love is that it helped our ancestors survive in civilizations in which women depended on men for most of the nutrition required for them and their offspring’s sustenance. In these civilizations, women would have benefitted evolutionarily by the emotion of  jealousy because the intensity of this emotion may have motivated them to prevent their man from straying. If the man did run off with another woman, she would lose her breadwinner, and the survival of her genetic material would be endangered. The men, too, would have had benefited evolutionarily from the emotion of jealousy because the intensity of this emotion likely would have motivated him to prevent the woman from mating with another man. If his woman mated with another man without his knowledge, he would have no way of knowing that the offspring was not his own. So, he would have wasted resources on bringing up another man’s children, which would not have helped him pass on his genetic material.

Recent studies [] have shown that jealousy may still play roughly a similar role in modern civilization. In cultures and subcultures where women depend for their livelihood on men’s economic status, men and women alike are more likely to be monogamous, regardless of religious or political attitudes. A likely reason for a stronger adherence to monogamy in these groups is that it benefits the survival of each party’s genetic material. The woman and the offspring depend for their survival on the man staying in the home, so they can continue to receive needed resources, and the man depend for the survival of his genetic material that the woman doesn’t stray, so his resources end up helping the survival of other men’s genes. Jealousy may motivate individuals in these situations to take action to protect against infidelity.

Many complex moods, too, may have had an evolutionary basis. As an example, consider depression–which today is partly defined by the length and intensity of the depressive symptoms. One explanation of its prevalence today is that our ancestors experienced a quick increase in, say, anhedonia or melancholy in critical circumstances, such as when resources were scarce or complicated problem-solving was needed in order to obtain them. The variation on today’s depressive symptoms we might envisage our ancestors having had under difficult survival conditions may have led them to find fewer non-essential activities pleasurable, being less motivated to start new projects and less likely to engage in rash decision-making. This would allow them to focus more intensely on the problem at hand and use careful analytic thinking to solve it. Those with this variation on today’s instances of depression would have had an evolutionary advantage compared to the more easy-going joyful and impulsive types who would rush the decision-making process and fail to solve the problem of how to survive during their hardship.

Our ancestors thus may not have experienced exactly the same emotions and moods as we experience, identify and name today. In some cases, they likely have experienced briefer, more moderate or otherwise deviating forms of today’s emotions and moods. On this view, today’s emotions and moods are the results of influences from the very different environment we now live in. Take fear as an example. If an ancestor who was out hunting for food encountered a dangerous grizzly bear, a burst of fear would likely have helped her survive. A fear response to the grizzly bear would be associated with an increase of blood flow and oxygen and an immediate release of glucose. This would make our ancestor better equipped physiologically to fight the bear or run away from it than if she had been indifferent or pleasantly relaxed.

Although we experience fear in response to things that are inherently dangerous today, we also sometimes experience a longer-lasting fear in response to the pressure and new standards of success imposed on us by modern culture. However, the fact that emotions and foods we experience today are partly influenced by the civilization we live in does not undermine its biological and evolutionary basis. The changes environmental pressures may trigger more intense or longer-lasting neurochemical responses of the same sort that caused the moods and emotions of our ancestors. Owing to the health consequences of intensified or longer-lasting these neurochemical responses, having the neurobiological systems that helped our ancestors may no longer be an evolutionary benefit for us. But it may take evolution ages to weed out the genes that generate this kind of extreme stress sensitivity in many modern humans.

The upshot is that while the emotions and moods we see examples of today may no longer be evolutionarily beneficial, they may the result of neurobiological responses that are very similar to neurobiological responses that once were advantageous in environments that were not continually putting pressure on us to perform beyond capacity.

Classification of Emotions: Valence and Arousal

Moods and emotions can be characterized along two dimensions: valence (sometimes scores on a positive-negative or pleasure–displeasure scale) and degree of arousal (sometimes scored on a activation-deactivation or engagement–disengagement scale). The valence of an emotion or mood pertains to the cognitive  interpretation of the physiological responses. The degree of arousal of an emotion or mood pertains to the degree of activation of the autonomic nervous system–the control system that regulates automatic bodily functions such as heart rate, arterial response, digestion, urination, pupillary response and sexual arousal. It is this part of the body’s nervous system that controls our fight-or-flight response, discussed earlier.

Positive valence-low arousal states include appreciation, sexual satisfaction and a feeling of relaxation. Negative valence-high arousal states include fear, disgust, anger, aggression, emotional hurt, and jealousy. Positive valence and high arousal are characteristic of sexual attraction, reciprocated romantic infatuation, euphoric mania and enthusiasm. Negative valence and low arousal are attributes of depression, melancholy, loneliness and helplessness. Here is a quick overview of a limited selection of emotions/moods in the four quadrants yielded by the valence-arousal principles of categorization:

                                  High Arousal            Low Arousal

Positive Valence        Enthusiastic            Appreciative

                                  Ecstatic                   Grateful

                                  Zealous                   Trusting

                                  Driven                      Hopeful                

                                 Competitive              Considerate


                                 Serene                       Receptive

Negative Valence      Tyrannic                   Bored

                                  Infuriated                 Depressed

                                  Annoyed                  Emotionally hurt

                                  Distressed               Drained

                                  Afraid                       Lonely

                                 Obsessed                 Sad

The valence and arousal effect of emotions and moods can both alter subjective feelings responsible for how we identify and name emotions as well as cognitive processes such as attention, memory, decision-making and problem solving.

Cultural Differences in Positive High-Arousal Emotions

An intriguing question that arises in this context is whether all emotions and moods witnessed today have an evolutionary basis or whether some of them are social constructs. By ‘social construct’ I mean that a physiological response (that /is/ biologically based) is completely reinterpreted in light of the influences of modern culture or historically significant event. Such a reinterpretation (by the brain) of a physiological response would be likely be felt entirely differently and give rise to a different pattern of behavior than an original interpretation. As a result, it would lead us to identify the response together with the new interpretation as a new emotion.

New studies indicate that differences in attitudes in Western individualistic cultures versus Eastern collectivist cultures–a relatively new development as far as evolution goes–may have led to different cognitive interpretations of physiological responses and hence may have generated novel moods and emotions. []

Consider first postively-valenced emotions, such as appreciation, sexual attraction, reciprocated romantic infatuation, sexual satisfaction, a feeling of relaxation, euphoric mania and enthusiasm. Among this multiplicity of positively valence (high pleasure) emotions, what is considered the ideal emotions that people thrive to experience varies across culture. Because people’s ideas about what counts as an ideal emotion motivates them to aim at engaging in certain kinds of behavior and avoid others, their attitudes toward positively valenced emotions may have quite significant impacts, not only on how individuals behave on a daily basis, but also on the structure of society in ethical, legal, political, economic and social arenas.

In Western individualistic culture, high-arousal positive emotional states, such as enthusiasm, are held in higher esteem and are subject to considerably greater appreciation and admiration than low arousal positive emotions. Happiness is equated with the possession of those states. As a consequence, Westerners desire to behaviorally manifest such attitudes.

In Eastern collectivist culture, low-arousal emotions are held in greater esteem than high-arousal emotions, which motivates a desire to manifest low-arousal emotions and avoid high-arousal emotions. With a focus on being solemn and reserved, happiness is equated with more serene emotional states and an Eastern wish to act accordingly.


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