The University Record, March 25, 1998

Red fish, blue fish help clarify cultural aspects of emotion

Phoebe Ellsworth thanked Robert Zajonc for telling her to 'never do anyting in the mainstream' when she delivered a lecture named for him. Photo by D.C. Goings, U-M Photo Services


By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Never do anything in the mainstream. That's the message Phoebe Ellsworth, the newly appointed Robert B. Zajonc Collegiate Professor of Psychology, received from the world-renowned social psychologist and former director of the Institute for Social Research. In her inaugural lecture last Thursday at the Rackham Building, Ellsworth saluted the man her new title honors.

Introduced by LS&A Dean Edie N. Goldenberg, Ellsworth acknowledged the presence of colleagues and students from both psychology and the Law School, where she also holds an endowed chair. There were, she noted, a few substantive and stylistic differences that made lecturing to the combined law and psychology audience a challenge.

"In law and the humanities, you're expected to have deep thoughts," she said. "In science, on the other hand, you'd better have data. Lots of it." In law, the practice of using visual aids, even overheads, during lectures is seen as a crutch, a sign of mental weakness, Ellsworth noted as she switched on her overhead projector. In science lectures, however, the more overheads you use, filled with numbers, the better. "Today I'll be doing a little bit of both," Ellsworth said, "so all of you can go home feeling contemptuous."

Ellsworth explained her interest in the complex relationships between emotion and culture, and the role that cognition plays in these relationships.

While some aspects of emotion are very general across cultures, and possibly even universal, it is also clear that people's emotional lives are profoundly influenced by the culture to which they belong, Ellsworth said. Supported by empirical studies of Chinese and American fourth-graders, seventh-graders and adults, Ellsworth has developed what she calls "an appraisal theory of emotion." Simply put, "how you feel depends on what you think is happening," she stated.

Emotions correspond to people's interpretations of their environment, according to Ellsworth, and either individual or cultural differences in emotion correspond to differences in these interpretations.

Ellsworth proposed a hypothesis of "universal contingency"--if people from different cultures or roles appraise a situation in the same way, they will feel the same emotion. If they feel different emotions, it is because they have interpreted the situation differently in one way or another.

This theory, she maintained, leaves a lot of room for cultural differences in emotions, which obviously exist. In her studies of Chinese and American children and adults, conducted with colleagues Kaiping Peng and Fan Fu-Xi, she began with the idea that differences in how Chinese and Americans reacted emotionally to various situations involving groups and individuals would differ systematically. This is because the American and Chinese cultures place very different emphases on the value of individuals and groups.

How to test this prediction without contaminating the emotional reactions of Chinese and American subjects was the problem Ellsworth and colleagues faced. Scenarios presented by means of language and visual representations would inevitably introduce gender, ethnicity, body language, facial expression and other cues that would muddy the conceptual waters.

So, leaving the mainstream of psychological research, Ellsworth used fish. "Their fins move a little," said Ellsworth, "but that's the extent of their emotional behavior." In one scenario, a school of computerized fish of different colors swims on-screen, pauses, then one fish (the blue fish) swims ahead, leaving the group behind. In another version, the fish again swim in together, then the school swims off, leaving the blue fish behind. In a third version, the blue fish is in the center of the screen, and other fish converge on it from both sides.

When the blue fish leaves the group behind, Americans are likely to say the blue fish is angry, and that it's leaving because it wants to get away from the group. Chinese are likely to say the blue fish is sad, and feels lonely and rejected. "Their interpretation is that the group has kicked the blue fish out," says Ellsworth.

In the situation in which other fish converge on the blue fish, 90 percent of the Chinese said the blue fish was feeling happy. "For Americans, the dominant emotion attributed to the blue fish was fear," Ellsworth noted.

When asked what the group was feeling, Chinese subjects were more likely to agree with each other than American subjects were. Attending to the feelings of the group, after all, is an important aspect of Chinese culture. But when Americans were asked what the blue fish was feeling, they were more likely to agree with each other, suggesting the tendency of Americans to pay attention to the feelings of individuals.

In these studies of cross-cultural differences in emotions, and in others conducted with former U-M student Lara Tiedens, now an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, Ellsworth has found that cultural differences increase with age. "You're born with a broader emotional range than you wind up with," she noted.

If further research supports Ellsworth's appraisal theory of emotion, it also will serve to weaken an idea that she considers as harmful as it is widespread. The belief that emotion and cognition, feeling and thinking, are on two different planes, and are often at war with each other, is simply incorrect, Ellsworth maintained. "Emotion doesn't interfere with mental prowess," she said. "Science is driven by passion, not derailed by it."