Irvine, Calif., May 22, 1997
A new UC Irvine study concludes that English-speaking and Japanese-speaking people share strikingly similar perceptions of emotion terms such as love, hate and fear in their respective languages -- a major finding that challenges prevailing views on how human emotions develop.
Researchers called the findings "stunning" and the strongest evidence to date that all humans share fundamental emotions that transcend differences in culture and language.
"It's so exciting because the prevailing view, at least for now, is that culture is the single-most important factor in human emotion and other cognitive domains," said A. Kimball Romney, a social sciences research professor who headed the study. "But we suggest, through our findings, that we share many more common traits with our fellow humans than previously imagined."
While further studies are needed to arrive at definitive conclusions, Romney said the findings represent a major step toward understanding human emotions.
The study, published in the recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved 33 English-speaking students at UCI and 49 Japanese-speaking students, 17 of whom were bilingual, at a university in Japan. The students were asked to review hundreds of groupings of emotion terms and indicate which ones they considered to be the most similar and the most dissimilar. The result: Unbeknownst to one another, the students from both countries agreed on nearly 70 percent of the subsequent sets of similar emotion terms.
UCI researchers said the results suggest that humans inherently share a collective understanding of the relationships of emotion terms, and hence, a common framework for emotions. Indeed, Romney said, the findings bolster a theory among a minority of anthropologists that cognitive functions such as emotions are universal. Romney predicted the findings will intensify an ongoing controversy over whether all humans share what he calls "cultural universals," or whether emotions are unique to individual cultures and languages, currently the prevailing view among anthropologists.
"I've been publishing research papers since 1950, and this is the most exciting thing I've ever participated in," Romney said. "The central puzzle is whether all human beings share the same emotions. If they do, and if their languages evolve to characterize those emotions, then we should find common cognitive representations of the domain of emotion terms."
Romney's research partners were Carmella Moore, who holds a research position at UCI, and Craig Rusch, a former UCI graduate student who teaches at Southern California College in Costa Mesa.
Earlier studies have searched for, and found, similar cultural universals in human facial expressions used to convey emotions. In his 1975 landmark study, "Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Clues," UC San Francisco Professor Paul Ekman concluded that humans' expressions are indeed universal. An expression of fear in America, for example, is the same in Papua New Guinea, although the two countries' cultures are light years apart.
Previous studies have attempted to draw similar conclusions about human language. But the UCI study was the first to do so using what Romney calls "unassailable" quantitative data and measurement techniques.
To create the test list of terms for the study, the researchers asked each student to list as many emotion terms as possible. The UCI students produced a total of 415 different terms, while their Japanese counterparts produced 384. The list was then condensed to 15 emotion terms, all of which were mentioned at least six times by both the English- speaking and Japanese-speaking students.
In one task, the students were given 105 three-word groupings of the 15 emotion terms, such as disgust, anger and love, and instructed to identify the most dissimilar word of the three. In another task, they were given all 105 possible word pairings, and were instructed to rate each pair, on a one-to- five scale, according to how similar the two words were.
Using a sophisticated measurement scale they developed at UCI, the researchers then compiled all of the students' answers into a grid containing thousands of rows of answers. (The total grid contained 2,970 grids of 15 columns, with each column representing one of the 15 tested emotion terms.) From this mountain of data, the team was able to produce a detailed analysis of the students' answers.
The results found that all of the students from both countries agreed on the relationship of 66 percent of the emotion terms, while only 6 percent were deemed "culture specific" to either English or Japanese, Romney said. Nine percent were deemed to be unique to individual students, meaning they had their own unique interpretations of specific terms and their relationship to other terms. Romney said the study had a sampling and error variance of 19 percent.