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Social Emotions in US and China: A Comparison with combined social science and neuroscience approaches

Yang Xiaofei examines cultural influences on social emotions in China and the U.S.
September 18, 2008


On October 9th, 2006 North Korea further intensified an already-precarious international political situation by successfullly conducting a nuclear test. Both the United States and China attempted to prevent an impending crisis from occurring by securing regional stability and safety, albeit via different routes. While the U.S. advocated tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, China insisted on utilizing diplomatic negotiation. The disparity of the  approaches reflected a difference of social emotions present in Chinese and American societies.

The capacity to share and understand the feelings of one another is essential to interpersonal relationships, social emotions govern our social life, and affect individual decision-making as well as national policy-making, as was displayed in the North Korea example.

It is no secret that cultural differences are all too present during social interactions between the U.S. and China. Although it is virtually impossible to simplify a vastly complex body of differences into one chief difference, Chinese culture promotes "fitting in and harmonious interdependence" with others while American culture promotes "independence from others" (Markus and Ketayama, 1991). The strikingly different perceptions that the citizens of China and the United States hold of themselves and others fuels such distinctions (Markus and Ketayama, 1991); these perceptions can influence the very nature of social emotions.

It is because of these differences that a more organic understanding of social emotions and the influence of culture on their expression is needed. In a recent study at USC, Dr. Antonio Damasio, Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yangk, and a group of researchers discovered that a neural network already known to subserve the faculty of self-awareness and to regulate the both body state and outward behavior also works to scale emotional responses to the situations and behaviors of others: the more socially and morally affecting the situation or behavior, the more active the network becomes.

Given the myriad of cross-cultural differences in social behaviors and the understanding that behaviors are manifestations of neurological and physiological processes the question of how culture modulates these processes, especially in the network that facilitates social emotion and self-awareness, arises.  By answering this question a new vehicle for interpreting the distinct patterns of social interactions in the two cultures would be provided. It is possible that social emotions in the two cultures share similar neural substrates but are modulated differently. Behavioral evidence exists for “universality” in the pattern of response for given emotions, but emotions are typically experienced with “lower frequency, intensity and duration” in China (Bond, 1993). Alternatively, it is possible that an entirely different neural network is recruited in social emotion processes in each culture.

Social science alone cannot empirically distinguish between those two possibilities. Yet if either hypothesis proves true, the discovery could support a new paradigm for understanding the role of culture in human perception. Thus, through a novel combination of social science and neuroscience modalities, we hope to provide evidence that disambiguates the nature of culture differences in social emotions. As the example of North Korea's nuclear test demonstrates, comprehension of the disparate levels of compassion and admiration felt in China and the U.S. on a given subject may provide better insight into the international affairs of both nations. The results of the study could have valuable implications for U.S.-China relations in virtually every sector, from politics and communication to business.

In the initial stage of the study, we will compare two social emotions, compassion and admiration, in two kinds of situations. The first type will concern compassion or admiration for social or moral qualities, such as generosity, perseverance, and regret, based on socially or morally related subject matter, and the other concerns virtuosic skills or physical non-permanent injury.

The data needed to be compiled for this research was made possible by a USCI graduate student summer fieldwork grant and help from our collaborator, Professor Ren-Lai Zhou, at Beijing Normal University. The data was collected this summer in Beijing. A total of 15 local students over the age of 18 participated in the study. All of them were native Mandarin speakers who were born and raised in China that were screened to meet recognized health criteria for fMRI studies.

To encourage the participants to feel genuinely emotional, they first went through a one-on-one interview session in which they heard true stories about people behaving in a way that would evoke one of the target social emotions. The participants discussed the stories with the experimenter and described their feelings about the protagonists in the stories. Each participant then underwent a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan, a non-invasive brain imaging technique, which enabled us to record real time activity in thinking human brains. During the scan the participants were shown short reminders of the stories they had just heard;  their task was to reproduce the emotional state previously experienced and capture it both objectively and subjectively and signal the intensity of their emotional response to each story on a small keypad. Participants' heart rate and respiration pattern were also recorded during the scan as an objective measure of their emotional states.

All participants reported feeling the target social emotions during the interview session and the fMRI scan. Interestingly enough, upon comparing our experiences with previous American subjects, it was noted that Chinese subjects were more reluctant to openly cry in front of the experimenter.

The American part of the study will soon be carried out at USC. In order to make valid direct comparison, American participants will be presented with the same set of stories as the Chinese subjects. Professor Xiaobing Tang of the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department has helped us ensure that the contents of the experiment are culturally comparable and that the translations are precise in order to ensure the maximum accuracy of the research.

The brain imaging data from Beijing is currently under analysis. Hopefully once the results of the American participants are gathered we will be better able to arrive at a conjecture that accounts for the behavior differences between the two cultures.

Yang Xiaofei is a graduate student at USC's Neuroscience Graduate Program.