The controversial idea that there are universals in the ways we use music received a boost in 2018, with the finding that people from 60 different countries were pretty good at judging whether a totally unfamiliar piece of music from another culture was intended to soothe a baby or to be danced to. Now, new research involving some of the same team has revealed that foreign lullabies that babies have never heard before work to relax them.
What’s your view on feelings of sadness, nervousness or hopelessness? Are they harmful emotions that we should strive to avoid feeling — an opinion that is widely held in the West? Or is natural, even helpful, to feel them from time to time — a perspective commonly found in Japan?
Now a study published in the journal Emotion reveals that our attitudes to negative emotions, such as sadness and hopelessness, matter, too. Previous studies have linked experience of these emotions to increased inflammation and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and even death among Americans, but not Japanese people. So Jiyoung Park at the University of Texas at Dallas and her colleagues set out to explore whether differences in stress might explain this. If, in contrast to Japanese people, Americans view the experience of negative emotions as a failure of self-control, and feel stress as a result, this could explain the links between these kinds of emotions and poorer health.
As an English-speaker, I might “see red” with anger, go “green” with envy or, on a bad day, “feel blue”. To me, it seems natural to associate certain colours with particular emotions — but is the same true for people around the world? And if so, do we all make the same emotion/colour matchings? These questions have been investigated in a new study, published in Psychological Science, which has produced some fascinating results.
As everyone knows, American undergrads are not representative of all humanity — and the perils of drawing conclusions about people in general from WEIRD studies have been well-publicised. To really understand which human experiences are universal, and which are a product of our individual cultures, we need big, well-conducted studies of people from many different cultures. Fortunately, there are studies like this. Here are some of their most fascinating insights…
There’s a commonly held notion that young people are more hopeful about the future than any other group — you might have heard this referred to, either positively or negatively, as “youthful optimism”. Even Jane Austen picked up on it: “There is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions”, she wrote in Sense and Sensibility.
But is this actually the case? According to a new study from William J. Chopik and colleagues published in the Journal of Research in Personality, optimism actually continues growing well past youth — and it’s only later in life that it begins to decline.
It’s well-known that psychology has a problem with generalisability. Studies overwhelmingly involve “WEIRD” participants: those who are western and educated, from industrialised, rich and democratic societies. And while there is increasing recognition that other populations need better representation in research, many psychologists still often draw sweeping conclusions about humanity based on results from a narrow portion of the world’s population.
A new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that this problem may have had another, more insidious effect. The authors argue that because of psychology’s traditionally narrow focus, we’ve ended up implicitly assuming that results of studies on WEIRD groups — particularly white Americans — are somehow more universally generalisable than those from other populations.
Western media, with its promotion of “thin ideals”, has been cited as an influence on attitudes. But the only way to really explore this is to study groups of people who are very similar, except that some have been exposed to Western media, while others have not. Needless to say, this isn’t easy. However, a team led by Lynda Boothroyd at the University of Durham has now published just such a set of studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their data suggests that TV exposure does indeed drive both men and women towards finding thinner female bodies more attractive.
When you can’t quite put your finger on how you’re feeling, don’t worry — there may be a non-English word that can help you out. There are hundreds of words across the world for emotional states and concepts, from the Spanish word for the desire to eat simply for the taste (gula) to the Sanskrit for revelling in someone else’s joy (mudita).
But what about those words that exist across many languages — “anger”, for example, or “happiness”? Do they mean the same thing in every language, or do we experience emotions differently based on the culture we are brought up in? Is the experience we call “love” in English emotionally analogous with its direct translation into Hungarian, “szerelem”, for example?
As anyone who’s ever had to scold their dog for stealing food off a plate or jumping onto that oh-so-tempting forbidden sofa can attest, dogs are pretty good at understanding what we’re saying to them — at least when it suits them.
Research has also shown that dogs are able to understand some aspects of human communication, perhaps because throughout history we’ve used dogs for their ability to respond to our commands. Words, hand signs and gestures, tone of voice and facial expression — it seems that dogs have the ability to understand them all. But what about human understanding of dogs?
All human cultures feature music. But the majority of studies of perceptions of music have been conducted on Western university students. This can make it hard to know whether the findings are biologically-driven, and common to all people, or the result of cultural influences.
To disentangle these two possibilities, you need a society that hasn’t really been exposed to Western music, for comparison. They’re not easy to find. But in 2016, a team led by Josh McDermott at MIT reported that the Tsimane’, a group of people living in the remote Bolivian rainforest, showed some unexpected differences in their musical perceptions compared to Western listeners. For example, while a chord comprised of an A and an F sharp sounded horribly grating to Western ears, for the Tsimane’ it was just as pleasant as a C with a G, which Westerners also enjoyed. Culture had to explain these differences.
Now a new study, led by Nori Jacoby at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Germany, has found that the Tsimane’ don’t perceive pitch in the same way as Americans, either. This work adds to other research finding cultural variations in perceptions that had once been assumed to be universal, such as colour perception.