MCAT Content / Self Presentation And Interacting With Others / Expressing And Detecting Emotion

Expressing and Detecting Emotion

Topic: Self Presentation And Interacting With Others

Gender and culture can have a profound impact on the way in which people display, perceive, and experience emotions.

Gender can have a profound impact on the way in which people display, perceive, and experience emotions. While women perform better than men in tests involving empathy, this is related to the subject’s perceived gender identity and expectations.

While women perform better than men in tests involving emotional interpretation (such as understanding facial expressions) and empathy, studies have shown that this is related to the subject’s perceived gender identity and gender expectations. Additionally, culture impacts gender differences in the expression of emotions. This may be explained by the different social roles men and women have in different cultures, and by the status and power men and women hold in different societies, as well as the different cultural values various societies hold.

The biology of gender can be explored when looking at the impact of gender on emotion. Although both men and women show increased outflow from the amygdala, it communicates with different areas of the brain in men and women. In men, the amygdala connects to regions that promote a response to external stimuli, like the visual cortex. In women, the amygdala connects to regions that monitor and regulate conditions within the body, like the hypothalamus. Women show a significantly greater activity in the left amygdala when encoding and remembering emotionally arousing pictures than do men, while men show greater activity in the right amygdala. Men and women tend to use different neural pathways to encode stimuli into memory. While highly emotional pictures were remembered best compared to emotionally neutral images by all participants in one study, women remembered the pictures better than men.

Additionally, responses to pain reveal sex differences. In women, the limbic system, which is involved in the processing of emotions, shows greater activity in response to pain. In men, cognitive areas of the brain, which are involved in analytical processing, show higher activity in response to pain. This indicates a connection between pain-responsive brain regions and emotional regions in women.

Women are more expressive in certain kinds of emotions (happiness, warmth, guilt, fear, and nervousness) while men are more expressive in other emotions (anger, contempt, and pride). Women have also been found to be better compared to men at describing in a complex way emotional reactions they would have to different life situations. However, most people more strongly attribute one emotion, anger, to men.

Culture can have a profound impact on the way in which people display, perceive, and experience emotions. Culture—i.e., the beliefs, values, behavior, and material objects that constitute a people’s way of life—can have a profound impact on how people display, perceive, and experience emotions. The culture in which we live provides structure, guidelines, expectations, and rules to help us understand and interpret various emotions.

cultural display rule dictates the types and frequencies of emotional displays considered acceptable within a certain culture. These rules may also guide how people choose to regulate their emotions, ultimately influencing an individual’s emotional experience and leading to general cultural differences in the experience and display of emotion.

For example, in many Asian cultures, social harmony is prioritized over individual gain, whereas Westerners in much of Europe and the United States prioritize individual self-promotion. Research has shown that individuals from the United States are more likely to express negative emotions such as fear, anger, and disgust both alone and in the presence of others, while Japanese individuals are more likely to do so only while alone. Furthermore, individuals from cultures that tend to emphasize social cohesion are more likely to suppress their own emotional reaction in order to first evaluate what response is most appropriate given the situation.

Cultures also differ in the social consequences that they assign to different emotions: in the United States, men are often directly or indirectly ostracized for crying; in the Utku Eskimo population, the expression of anger can result in social ostracism.

Although conventions regarding the display of emotion differ from culture to culture, our ability to recognize and produce associated facial expressions appears to be universal. Research comparing facial expressions across different cultures has supported the theory that there are seven universal emotions, each associated with a distinct facial expression. That these emotions are “universal” means that they operate independently of culture and language. It is worth noting that more complex emotions such as jealousy, love, and pride are different from these more basic emotions, as they involve awareness of the relationships between the self and other people. Complex emotions are therefore more likely to be dependent on cultural differences than are the seven more basic emotions.


Key Points

• In multiple studies, women have fared better than men at using nonverbal cues to determine things such as which romantic couple out of two is an actual romantic couple and who is lying about something

• Women also are more likely to rate themselves as being open emotionally. This helps to corroborate the perception by all 18 to 29-year-olds that women are more strongly connected to emotions than men.

• Research shows that physiologically, men and women react in a similar way with respect to empathy. However, women are more likely to show their emotions.

• The culture in which we live provides structure, guidelines, expectations, and rules to help us understand, interpret, and express various emotions.

• A “cultural display rule” is a culturally specific standard that governs the types and frequencies of emotional displays considered acceptable by a given culture.

• Cultural scripts dictate how positive and negative emotions should be experienced and displayed; they may also guide how people choose to regulate their emotions, ultimately influencing an individual’s emotional experience.

• Cultural contexts also act as cues when people are trying to interpret facial expressions. This means that different cultures may interpret the same social context in very different ways.

• Despite different emotional display rules, our ability to recognize and produce basic facial expressions of emotion appears to be universal. In fact, research has discovered seven basic types of emotions expressed in human faces: sadness, happiness, disgust, surprise, anger, contempt, and fear.

• Complex emotions such as jealousy, love, and pride are different from basic emotions and are more likely to be dependent on cultural influences than are more basic emotions.


Key Terms

emotion: The complex psychophysiological experience of an individual’s state of mind as it interacts with biochemical (internal) and environmental (external) influences

culture: A shared set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, values, and behavior organized around a central theme and found among speakers of one language, in one time period, and in one geographic region

gender: The socio-cultural phenomenon of the division of people into various categories such as “male” and “female,” with each having associated clothing, roles, stereotypes, etc

gender identity: A person’s sense of self as a member of a particular gender

amygdala: part of the brain shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions

hypothalamus: a crucial role in releasing hormones

cultural display rule: dictates the types and frequencies of emotional displays considered acceptable within a certain culture



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