Affect is universal

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Chapter 3 endnote 20, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

If humans actually had an inborn ability to recognize emotional expressions, then removing the emotion words from the [basic emotion] method should not matter... but it did, every single time. There is very little doubt that emotion words have a powerful influence in experiments, instantly casting into doubt the conclusions of every study ever performed that used the basic emotion method. [...] People worldwide can perceive pleasant versus unpleasant feeling in experiments that don’t use the basic emotion method.

In my lab's studies (discussed in chapter 3), the only universality in evidence was for pleasant vs. unpleasant feeling (which scientists call “valence” and which, you will learn in chapter 4, is different from emotion). A number of other studies also find evidence for the universality of valence.[1][2][3] People may not agree on what is pleasant and what is unpleasant, but they agree that the affective distinction is meaningful.

Every word in every language (that has been studied) has a positive, negative, or neutral connotation.[4][5] When describing a person as very engaged and committed, for example, the word “passionate” is perceived as positive, “obsessive” is perceived as negative, and “intense” is neutral. All three words have similar descriptive meaning but different valence.

Chapter 4 endnote 1, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Every human language that has been studied has words for “I feel good” and “I feel bad.” [...] Findings like these have led psychologists like J. A. Russell to claim that valence and arousal properties are universal.[1]

Arousal (feeling worked up and attentive vs. tranquil and even sleepy) may also be universal, although the evidence is slightly less robust than what we see for valence.

Numerous studies find evidence for valence and arousal around the world. When people view abstract visual patterns and describe their aesthetic reactions, they appear to do so universally with valence and arousal.[6][7] Participants from India (Gujarati), Spain, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Haiti, Greece, China, Croatia, Estonia, Japan, and Poland were asked to judge the similarities and differences between pairs of emotion words. When scientists used statistics (multidimensional scaling) to extract the dimensions of similarity by statistical means, they found both valence and arousal.[8][9][10] Valence and arousal also describe the properties of people’s affective feelings in the U.S., Canada, Spain, China, Japan, and Korea.[11][12][13] When people from Greece, China, the Netherlands, and of course the US judged the similarity and differences of stereotyped emotion poses of the basic emotion method, similar valence and arousal dimensions were observed to underlie these judgments.[14]

Valence and arousal even seem universal online (for example, check out this sentiment analysis website). Using data from Twitter, scientists examined the valence and arousal levels characterizing over five million tweets associated with 12 affective keywords. Valence and arousal described the content of the tweets equally well for European, Asian and North American users.[15] (With one caveat: all the tweets were in English.) Although the two properties themselves appeared identical across cultures, they were emphasized differently. Violating cultural stereotypes, Europeans were more likely to express pleasant, high arousal states (typically assumed to be a U.S. characteristic), whereas North Americans expressed more unpleasantness. Asians expressed more low arousal pleasantness in line with their cultural stereotype for the type of affect that they find ideal.[16]

Valence and arousal are even basics element of consciousness (dharmas) in the traditional Abhidharma Buddhist philosophy of mind.[17]


Notes on the Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Russell, James A. 1991. “Culture and the Categorization of Emotions.” Psychological Bulletin 110 (3): 426–450.
  2. Crivelli, Carlos, James A. Russell, Sergio Jarillo, and José-Miguel Fernández-Dols. 2016. "Recognizing Spontaneous Facial Expressions of Emotion in a Small-Scale Society of Papua New Guinea." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 66 (2): 99-102.
  3. Crivelli, Carlos, Sergio Jarillo, James A. Russell, and José-Miguel Fernández-Dols. 2016. "Reading emotions from faces in two indigenous societies." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 145 (7): 830-843.
  4. Wierzbicka, Anna. 1999. Emotions Across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Osgood, Charles Egerton, George John Suci, Percy H. Tannenbaum. 1957. The Measurement of Meaning. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  6. Berlyne, David E. 1975. "Extension to Indian subjects of a study of exploratory and verbal responses to visual patterns." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 6 (3): 316-330.
  7. Berlyne, D. E., M. C. Robbins, and R. Thompson. "A cross-cultural study of exploratory and verbal responses to visual patterns varying in complexity." In Studies in the New Experimental Aesthetics: Steps Toward an Objective Psychology of Aesthetic Appreciation, edited by D. E. Berlyne, 259-278. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
  8. Herrmann, Douglas J., and Douglas Raybeck. 1981. "Similarities and differences in meaning in six cultures." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 12 (2): 194-206.
  9. Russell, 1983 [full reference to be provided]
  10. Russell, James A., Maria Lewicka, and Toomas Niit. 1989. "A cross-cultural study of a circumplex model of affect." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57 (5): 848-856.
  11. Yik, Michelle. 2007. "Culture, gender, and the bipolarity of momentary affect." Cognition and Emotion 21 (3): 664-680.
  12. Yik, Michelle SM, and James A. Russell. 2003. "Chinese affect circumplex: I. Structure of recalled momentary affect." Asian Journal of Social Psychology 6 (3): 185-200.
  13. Yik, Michelle. 2009. "Studying affect among the Chinese: The circular way." Journal of Personality Assessment 91 (5): 416-428.
  14. Osaka, Naoyuki. 1986. "Cross-cultural differences in the perception of facial expressions of ambiguous Noh faces." Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 24 (6): 427-430.
  15. Bann, Eugene Y., and Joanna J. Bryson. 2013. "Measuring cultural relativity of emotional valence and arousal using semantic clustering and Twitter." Presented at the 35th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2013), Berlin, Germany.
  16. Tsai, Jeanne L. 2007. "Ideal affect: Cultural causes and behavioral consequences." Perspectives on Psychological Science 2 (3): 242-259.
  17. Dreyfus, Georges, and Evan Thompson. 2007. “Asian Perspectives: Indian Theories of Mind.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, edited by Philip David Zelazo, Morris Moscovitch, and Evan Thompson, 89–114. New York: Cambridge University Press.