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(p. 60) Cultural and Social Aspects of Emotion Regulation 

(p. 60) Cultural and Social Aspects of Emotion Regulation
(p. 60) Cultural and Social Aspects of Emotion Regulation

Selda Koydemir

, and Cecilia A. Essau

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date: 17 November 2017

Managing emotions

In the last two decades, the field of psychology has witnessed a substantial interest in human emotionality, including how emotions are experienced, expressed, and managed. Emotion regulation is critical for well-being given that studies have demonstrated the positive relationship between healthy emotion regulation and well-being domains such as adjustment, mental health, and positive social relationships (Gross, 2007). Research also shows that failure to regulate emotions is linked to a wide range of psychopathology as well as interpersonal, social and cognitive impairments (Aldao, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Schweizer, 2010; Rottenberg & Gross, 2003; 2007).

Despite the growing literature on emotional processes, researchers continue to debate whether emotions are inborn, evolutionary reactions to the outside world or if they are a result of social and cultural practices (Ekman & Friesen, 1971; Lutz, 1988). Early research on emotion suggested emotions are universal and are accompanied by distinct bodily reactions (Ekman, 1965; 1984; Mead, 1975). For instance, although Ekman discussed the ability of individuals to regulate their emotions based on what cultures determine is the appropriate emotion expression, he also proposed that emotions should be perceived as cross-culturally invariant. However, contemporary research using a culture-specific perspective of emotions suggests that emotions are social constructions and can be best understood on the social level (Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakkunkit, 1997; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Matsumoto, 1990). In fact, today, the universal nature of emotions is widely accepted, but the important role socialization processes and cultural values play on emotional expressions and processes is also considered. As such, emotions are perceived to be the product of cultural and social processes by which their physiological, neurological, and psychological components are elicited (Cole, Tamag, & Shrestha, 2006; Kitayama & Markus, 1994).

Cultural theories propose that the self and emotion are shaped by cultural meanings and practices (Bruner, 1990; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Miller, 1999). The self is closely linked to regulation since regulatory processes have an effect on the way emotions are experienced as well as how those emotions are expressed in social situations (Srivastava, Tamir, McGonigal, John, & Gross, 2009). Besides, culture functions to maintain social order, and describes certain norms regarding emotion regulation (Keltner, Ekman, Gonzaga, & Beer, 2003). In line with these assumptions, past research has shown that there are cultural differences with respect to many aspects of emotion regulation including emotion-related appraisals (Mauro, Sato, & Tucker, 1992; Roseman, Dhawan, Rettek, Naidu, & Thapa, 1995), coping (Taylor, Sherman, Kim, Jarcho, Takagi, & Dunagan 2004; Yeh & Inose, 2002), and suppression (Matsumoto, Yoo, Hirayama, & Petrova, 2005).

(p. 61) This chapter focuses on the social and cultural aspects of emotion regulation by examining cultural explanations of emotional regulation differences, and documenting empirical evidence garnered from cross-cultural research.

Understanding cross-cultural research

Culture is one of the most commonly used concepts in contemporary psychological research. This popularity comes from the recognition that culture is a powerful tool in guiding our perception, attention, behavior, and emotion, while also determining how we establish and maintain social relationships (D’Andrade & Strauss, 1992; Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Although culture has long been regarded as being restricted to nations, it has become important among researchers to emphasize not only geographical differences but also different aspects of culture itself including age, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, race, and traditions. Approaches in cross-cultural psychology, thus, conceptualize culture as dynamic systems. Early on, Triandis (1972) defined culture by referring to “the shared attitudes, beliefs, categorizations, expectations, norms, roles, self-definitions, values, and other such elements of subjective culture found among individuals whose interactions were facilitated by shared language, historical period, and geographical region.” (p. 3).

Cross-cultural psychology deals with the study of relationships between behaviors and the cultural context. In essence, it compares behavior of interest across two or more cultures (Matsumoto, 1996). Cross-cultural psychology investigates both differences and similarities of constructs common to a range of cultural contexts. In understanding behaviors and emotions, cross-cultural psychology provides important sources to researchers by examining whether the psychological knowledge of one culture is applicable to another. Besides, in the field of clinical psychology, cross-cultural studies enable researchers to examine the universality of psychiatric disorders and symptoms; the cultural differences of experience of emotions and related emotional and behavioral problems; the meaning of psychiatric disorders and symptoms in different cultures; and the information that will facilitate culturally sensitive treatment options for disorders. Cross-cultural psychology also helps researchers to examine the variations in emotional display and functioning in different cultures, as well as the socialization practices that influence these variations in emotions (Ellsworth, 1994; Wang & Fivush, 2005).

Cultural psychology, which is distinguishable from cross-cultural psychology, studies the relationships within a given culture and certain psychological constructs in relation to individuals living in that particular region (Shiraev & Levy, 2010). Despite the differences in understanding and explaining the relationship between culture and psychological constructs, both cross-cultural psychology and cultural psychology contribute valuable information with regard to human behavior.

Socialization and emotion regulation

Cultural norms influence emotional development in the context of early parent-child relationships (Thompson, 1994) and by prescribing which, when, and how emotions should be displayed (Matsumoto & Juang, 2013). There are considerable cultural as well as intra-societal variability in the experience and expressions of emotions (Mesquita & Karasawa, 2004). It is reasonable to assume that although the underlying biological system of emotions is universal, one should make certain changes in order to adapt to a variety of socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded or exposed to (Mesquita & Albert, 2007; Ochsner & Gross, 2007). It is essential to understand the social environments surrounding the emotion regulation and related behavior so that the process and outcomes can be fully understood (Zeman, Cassano, Perry-Parrish, & Stegall, 2006). As argued by Averill (1980), “emotions are not just remnants of our phylogenetic past, nor can they (p. 62) be explained in strictly physiological terms. Rather, they are social constructions, and they can be fully understood only on a social level of analysis” (p. 309).

The way parents respond to children’s emotions is crucial to children’s self- and emotion-regulation capabilities. Parents can either directly affect children’s emotion regulation by coaching self-regulation of children or indirectly by managing the emotional demands in the family (Thompson & Meyer, 2007). One study revealed that mothers’ problem solving responses to their children’s negative emotions were correlated with children’s constructive coping with problems (Eisenberg, et al., 1996). In other studies it was revealed that children of mothers who valued guiding emotion development had a better emotional understanding, emotional competence and psychosocial adjustment (Dunsmore & Karn, 2001; Katz, Maliken, & Stettler, 2012). Cunningham, Kliwer, and Garner (2009) showed that mothers’ emotion coaching is negatively associated with later internalizing and externalizing behavior. In a more recent study by Meyer et al. (2014), it was found that children of parents who attended to and accepted emotional experiences, and maintained more positive emotion socialization had children who had more constructive self-regulatory strategies.

Parents’ socialization of emotions in their children seems to be important for the well-being of children. However, cultural differences are also present in relation to the socialization of emotions. Cross-cultural research provides us with an understanding of the similarities and differences in the way emotions are experienced across different cultures as well as the socialization practices that play a role in the variations of emotions (Wang & Fivush, 2005). Both the experience and the expressions of emotion are culturally constructed and shaped by a given context (Lutz, 1988; Russell, 1991). People are socialized in a way that teaches them which emotions are appropriate and inappropriate in varying contexts (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002; Parkinson, 1996). A variety of emotional processes show cultural differences given that different beliefs and values shape our affective life (Matsumoto, Kudoh, Scherer, & Walbott, 1988; Parkinson, 1996). Therefore, it is difficult to understand emotion regulation without an understanding of the context of the practices that the sociocultural world creates (Cheung & Park, 2010).

Gross and Thompson (2006) in their modal model theory of emotion regulation asserted that cognitive appraisals related to emotions are constructed by significant others’ and environment reactions to the specific behaviors in the concept of reasons and results. They concluded that children’s emotion regulation processes are highly influenced by their own culture in terms of their overt versus covert behavior, the level at which it is deemed socially acceptable to express personal goals and the degree of coping with problems. Besides, one’s goals, which are not only shaped by internal processes but also the socio-cultural environment, are important in deciding how to manage a particular emotion. Prosocial goals, such as the desire to avoid negatively affecting others with one’s emotional expressions, can be an example of interpersonal goals shaped by others.

Among the emotion processes, emotion regulation is crucial for physical and mental health and well-being. Emotion regulation consists of processes through which individuals modulate their emotions either consciously and nonconsciously so that they appropriately respond to the environment (Rottenberg & Gross, 2003; Thompson, 1994). Matsumoto (2006) defined emotion regulation as “the ability to manage and modify one’s emotional reactions to achieve goal-directed outcomes” (Matsumoto, 2006, p. 421). The concept of emotion regulation is based on the idea that individuals are active agents in their emotional processes, and that they can control their emotions by using different regulation processes (Gross, 2007). It consists of selections of and changes in the duration, intensity, and balance of emotion-related behaviors (Cole, Martin, & Dennis, 2004; Thompson, 1990). Thus, emotion regulation is a dynamic construct and does not only imply the suppression or control of emotion, but it also includes emotional substitution and the alteration of one’s emotions depending on the purposes.

(p. 63) Knowing one’s feelings, what emotions should be expressed when, and what to do with emotions are skills that are essential for adaptive social interactions and behavioral development (Halberstadt, Denham, & Dunsmore, 2001; Hubbard & Coie, 1994). In the development of these skills (i.e., emotion regulation), socialization plays a key role. To some extent, emotion regulation is learned through observation of others and the teachings of parents as to the accepted ways of expressing emotions (Denham, 1998). However, it is important to note that the norms and beliefs of the appropriateness of emotional experience and expression change among cultures. As Saarni (1999) states, cultural expectations from an individual are fundamental for emotion regulation. Learning and understanding which group of emotions are appropriate to express, the way of expressing them, the best time to express them and selecting the appropriate person to express them to are all constructed depending on the familial values (Southam-Gerow, 2013).

There have been a limited number of studies that have examined the links between emotion socialization processes and children’s emotive functioning in different cultures. For example, in a study that examined parenting practices of mothers of pre-school-age children living in Mainland China and those living in the Unites States, Chinese mothers’ tendency to encourage modesty in their children was found more often as compared to American mothers (Wu et al., 2002). Chinese mothers also considered shaming and love withdrawal to be more acceptable in terms of emotion parenting styles in comparison with American mothers. Suveg and collaegues (2014) compared families from the United States and China regarding family emotional expressiveness, children’s emotional experiences and regulation. Children and families from the United States were found to have greater emotional expressiveness than their Chinese counterparts. Furthermore, American children reported greater under-controlled emotion that comprised externalizing types of managing emotional experiences, such as slamming doors when angry and fussing/whining when sad when compared to the Chinese children cohort. This study also showed that family expression of positive emotion was related to effortful emotion regulation among American children, whereas family expression of negative emotion was associated with under-controlled emotion for both United States and Chinese children.

It is known that typical emotion socialization of European American parents is supportive (Warren & Stifter, 2008). Western parents also prefer to talk about the causes and consequences of emotions (Wang, 2006). On the other hand, East Asian mothers use minimization as much as expressive encouragement (Tao, Zhou, & Wang, 2010), and do not support children’s emotion expression (Wang, 2006). In one study, to their child’s aggression toward peers, European American mothers reported non-supportive responses such as punishment as compared to Chinese mothers who used discussion and education to a greater extent (Cheah & Rubin, 2004). Additionally, European American mothers reported that they would be disappointed by child aggression whereas Chinese mothers thought they would be angry. Culture, thus, affects how parents use socialization of emotions.

In sum, parents’ beliefs about emotion socialization and their child rearing practices are important in children’s emotion regulation. In fact, caregivers’ emotion socialization is key to emotion regulation development throughout childhood. Children take these beliefs as “… a meaning system for constructing the self, others, and social relations.” (Trommsdorff & Heikamp, 2013, p. 69). In general, supportive and constructive responses of parents (e.g., encouragement of emotion expression) facilitate the development of competent emotion regulation skills in children (Thompson & Meyer, 2007), while non-supportive responses (e.g., punitive responses) are associated with children’s poorer emotional competence (Denham & Grout, 1993). Besides, the experience and expression of emotion is culturally constructed, and emotions are socialized in line with socially and culturally appropriate norms and expectations in different contexts. Therefore, it is (p. 64) important to understand the socialization processes in different cultures in order to make sense of emotion regulation differences.

Cultural models of self and emotion regulation

Kitayama and Markus (1994, p. 4) argued that emotion is “fully encultured” and should be understood in terms of a cultural frame. Regarding the relationships between culture and human behavior, cultural models are known to involve certain beliefs and social practices which determine what is appropriate, moral, and desirable in terms of self and relationships. Following Hofstede’s (1980) important and popular work on cross-cultural differences in values, researchers became increasingly interested in the constructs of individualism and collectivism, and used this dimension of culture as a theoretical model in their studies. Most of the cross-cultural studies in emotion regulation also made use of this dimension (e.g., Elfenbein & Ambady, 2003; Kwon, Yoon, Joormann, & Kwon, 2013). Generally speaking, individualism was described as a cultural pattern emphasizing an individual’s goal attainment and personal well-being, whereas collectivism was perceived to place more emphasis on the collective such as the family or group.

Researchers use this dimension and attribute individual traits to people from Western cultures, and attribute collective characteristics to people from non-Western cultures. Individualism is strongly associated with autonomy, competence, and personal achievement; whereas collectivism is closely related with duty toward one’s group, interdependence, and maintaining harmony in relationships. Therefore, in most of the individualistic cultures such as the United States, the self is construed in independent terms as a unique entity, and differentiated from other people. On the other hand, in collectivist cultures such as Japan, the self is construed in interdependent terms that emphasize connectedness with other people, which become meaningful in the large context of social relationships (Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; Hofstede, 2001). Not surprisingly, parents in collectivistic countries (e.g., China) tend to encourage the suppression of ego-focused emotions (e.g., anger) in order to maintain interpersonal harmony, and encourage their children to express group-oriented emotions such as gratitude, whereas in individualistic cultures individual-oriented emotions such as happiness are promoted to a greater extent (Saw & Okazaki, 2010).

However, as it is well-known, cultures are not homogenous, and depending on the situational cues, both individualistic and collectivist orientations can be manifested in individuals of very different cultures. In order to capture intra- and inter-cultural variance, one needs to move from a simple dichotomy such as individualism versus collectivism (Bond & Van de Vijver, 2011; Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeler, 2002). As argued by Ford and Mauss (2015), it is not a membership to a particular culture that is important in regulating emotion, but rather their motivation to do so. Independence and interdependence are present in all cultures; yet some cultures place more emphasis on one or the other. In this respect, when emotions and behaviors are contextualized in terms of cultural models of the self, it requires the acknowledgment that emotions and behaviors can be best understood at different levels.

Triandis (1989) made an association between the macro-level cultural differences in individualism and collectivism and the micro-level self. He proposed that depending on a particular culture’s emphasis on individualism and collectivism, different self-conceptualizations become more prevalent in a society. In this respect, in individualistic cultures, people are more concerned about themselves or individuals, and their thoughts are openly expressed. In collectivist cultures, people are more concerned with the in-groups that they belong to. Markus and Kitayama (1991) extended this model to create a distinction between the independent and interdependent self. The main differences between independent and interdependent models of the self is that while the former (p. 65) is concerned with individual autonomy and self-achievement, the latter is concerned primarily with social goals and maintaining harmony. This kind of a difference helps us to understand not only the differences among different cultural groups, such as Western and Eastern cultures, but also individuals who dominantly operate at either of these levels. To what extent relationships are valued and the ways they are evaluated differ as one’s independent and interdependent selves function. For example, in those cases in which independence is valued, relationships are evaluated in terms of meeting one’s personal needs (Rothbaum, Weisz, Pott, Miyake, & Morelli, 2000). On the other hand, in interdependent cultures, people want to fit in the social relationships, and one’s self is evaluated in terms of meeting the expectations of others (Oishi & Diener, 2003; Mesquita & Markus, 2004; Rothbaum et al, 2000).

These arguments and empirical findings have several implications for the experience of human emotionality. The majority of the cross-cultural studies discuss cultural differences in emotion regulation in relation to the American notion of emotion regulation versus non-Western notions. These studies were based on the discussed cultural differences in individualism and collectivism and the micro-level self. The following is a review of studies that examined the relationship between culture and emotion regulation.

Cross-cultural differences in emotion regulation

Contemporary research on emotion regulation has taken a social-oriented approach and suggested that people can use emotion regulation with the goal of acting in accordance with others’ expectations (Rothbaum & Wang, 2010; Trommsdorff, 2009). The distinction between self-oriented and social-oriented emotion regulation is consistent with the view of the self as independent versus interdependent (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The individual-oriented approach observed in many Western cultures emphasizes authentic expression of emotions motivated by autonomy goals, whereas the social-oriented approach observed in many non-Western societies is concerned with the goal of interdependence and relatedness (Kitayama, Mesquita, & Karasawa, 2006; Kitayama et al., 2000).

In line with these assumptions, in cross-cultural research, a distinction has been made between socially engaging and disengaging emotions (Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000). It has been proposed that in cultures where the self is constructed with respect to interpersonal relationships and group cohesion, engaging emotions such as respect and shame become more salient. On the other hand, in cultures where the self is defined in individual and independent terms, disengaging emotions such as pride and anger are more salient (Kitayama, Mesquita, & Karasawa, 2006; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; 1994). Depending on which goals—independent or interdependent—are thwarted, certain emotions will arise which will eventually facilitate either social engagement or disengagement of the self. For example, caregivers in individualistic cultures tend to foster happiness as a goal which fits with the goal of autonomy (Heine at al., 1999; Mesquita & Albert, 2007), whereas in collectivistic cultures emotional harmony rather than intense happiness is fostered by caregivers since emotional harmony is associated with harmonious relationships and social order (Mesquita & Albert, 2007; Uchida & Kitayama, 2009).

Another cultural difference manifested is in East Asian collectivistic cultures where negative emotions can be tolerated to a larger extent, down regulation of intense positive emotions is common, and, in some of these cultures, the balance between and moderation of positive and negative emotions are seen as dominant cultural scripts (Eid & Diener, 2001; Kitayama et al., 2000; Peng & Nisbett, 1999; Uchida & Kitayama, 2009). Morover, Americans are more likely than Japanese to experience positive emotions more frequently while Japanese are more likely than Americans to experience both positive and negative emotions in moderation more frequently (Miyamoto & Ryff, 2011).

(p. 66) One fundamental aspect of emotion regulation, which is also particularly relevant for understanding the role of culture, is expressive suppression. Suppression is concerned with the inhibition of the expressive, behavioral component of emotion, such as gestures or verbal expressions. It is well known that collectivist cultures are more likely than individualistic cultures to emphasize adjusting the self and behavior in order to maintain relationship harmony and social cohesion. This characteristic of the culture suggests that when the expression of an emotion is possibly detrimental for one’s relationships, people tend to use emotional suppression which is in line with the interdependent model of the self. Thus, suppression of emotions may be more encouraged in collectivist cultures, with a motive to fulfill prosocial goals (e.g., suppression of anger to preserve group harmony). On the other hand, given that suppression may create a discrepancy between one’s inner experience of emotion and observable expressive behavior, the use of suppression may interfere with one’s self-concept which is a characteristic of the independent self. Therefore, individuals from Western cultures could be expected to be less likely than individuals from East Asian cultures to use emotional suppression as a regulatory process.

In line with these assumptions, Matsumoto and colleagues (2008) determined that cultures emphasizing social order and hierarchy scored higher on emotion suppression. Additionally, they reported that a positive correlation exists between emotion suppression and reappraisal for cultures emphasizing social order and hierarchy. On the other hand, for cultures emphasizing autonomy and egalitarianism, suppression scores were lower, and there was a negative correlation between suppression and reappraisal. Other studies support this finding, as they have demonstrated that suppression is not only more frequently applied in collectivistic cultures (Gross & John, 2003), but it is also associated with less negative social consequences and lower negative affect (Butler, Lee, & Gross, 2007; Soto, Levenson, & Eberling, 2005). An earlier study (Scherer, Matsumoto, Wallbott, & Kudoh, 1988) noted that Japanese individuals reported fewer gestures and body movement than Americans in situations of fear, anger, and sadness, as well as happiness. This can be explained by the argument that emotional expressions and behaviors are exhibited in a consistent manner that fits with cultural models.

Cultures also differ with respect to the promotion of events that are associated with particular emotions. In other words, the extent to which certain events are created or facilitated varies in accordance with cultural goals. For people in Western/individualistic cultures, the dominant cultural pattern is to promote or create events that will maximize the experience of positive emotions and minimize negative emotions (Kitayama, Markus, & Kurakawa, 2000; Tsai & Levenson, 1997). In the typical North American culture, for instance, happiness activation is valued to a great extent, people are encouraged and reinforced to feel happy, many contexts in which happiness is likely to occur are created or promoted, and happiness is perceived as a result of fulfilling one’s personal goals (Hochschild, 1995; Mesquita & Walker, 2003; Wierzbicka, 1994). Besides, individuals themselves tend to select situations in which they would engage in activities that promote happiness (Diener & Suh, 1999). In contrast, in Japan, happiness is not one of the most important goals of life. Pursuit of one’s individual happiness is not encouraged in the context of the society. Instead, pursuit of the happiness of the groups or the society is the main focus. Furthermore, individuals in collectivist cultures are more likely to approach situations that foster contribution to others and emotions are cultivated as the means to harmonious relationships (Heine et al., 1999).

Cultural differences in emotion regulation are also evident in terms of situation modification which is an important component of emotion regulation. Individuals with a dominant independent self emphasize personal well-being, and their own preferences; hence they tend to change the situations to fit their needs. On the contrary, since individuals with an interdependent self are primarily focused on the expectations and needs of others, they tend to accommodate others in difficult situations (Kitayama, Duffy, & Uchida, 2007; Rothbaum & Trommsdorf, 2007). Given that (p. 67) individuals with an independent self-concept aim for happiness and autonomy, they use strategies to increase self-confidence. For individuals with an interdependent self-concept, harmony is a common goal and thus they are more willing to accept other people. Research shows that children who are motivated by autonomy tend to change stress-eliciting situations to ones that facilitates happiness (Heine et al., 2001). On the other hand, in stress-eliciting environments, children who are motivated by social harmony tend to restore calmness rather than seek happiness.

Differences in emotion regulation styles within cultures were studied more than a decade ago by Weisz, Suwanlert, Chaiyasit, Weiss, Achenbach, and Eastman (1993) within Thai and American adolescents. In this study, parents’ reports were used to measure the differences. Researchers reported that Thai adolescents showed more control over (e.g., shyness, compulsivity) problems than Americans and their emotion regulation strategies were different from each other such that Americans were more direct, open and controlled aggressive towards others under controlled situations whereas Thai adolescents showed introversion behaviors.

Morelen and colleagues (2012) compared the way in which children in Ghana, Kenya and America manage their anger in times of sadness. Children in Ghana were found to report displaying their anger in more overt, under controlled ways than Kenyan and American children. Kenyan children on the other hand reported suppressing their anger more than children in Ghana and in the US. These findings suggested that children in Ghana were more expressive with wider fluctuations in their emotionality than children from the US and Kenya. In terms of sadness, American children were found to exert more control over this emotion than the two groups of African children; however, Kenyan children responded calmly to their sadness more than Ghanaian and American children. The authors argued that these differences may be related to socialization experiences, in that emotional expressivity is shaped by the expectations and responses of others to anger expression. Specifically, most of the children who lived in the village often received harsh repercussions for their overt emotional displays by family, whereas similar responses were not observed in the suburban areas. Speculatively, the village children might have learned to control their anger in response to the expectation that they would receive a punitive response to emotional displays.

In another study, Zhou and Bishop (2012) examined experiential and cardiovascular outcomes of three anger regulation strategies (expression, suppression and reappraisal) in Chinese and Caucasian undergraduate students during a role-play that was used to induce anger. Results indicated that Chinese students reported using reappraisal more frequently in anger situations than did Caucasians; whereas, no differences were obtained for suppression. Their findings also showed that cultural background moderated the effects of regulation strategy on cardiovascular reactivity (CVR) following anger provocation. Specifically, when asked to suppress their emotions, Caucasians showed stronger CVR, whereas, Chinese students showed stronger CVR when instructed to express their anger. The Chinese students’ greater use of reappraisal compared with Caucasians is interpreted as being consistent with the “other orientation” among the Chinese, indicating that Chinese people are attuned to others on psychological and behavioral levels (Yang, 1995). “Other orientation” is also related to a tendency to conform to others, strong concern about social norms, and an attempt to create a better impression on others through self-monitoring (Zhou & Bishop, 2012). Furthermore, the ability to control the impulse to express anger is regarded by the Chinese as a good quality and is pursued as an achievement (Yang, 1995).

Cultural scripts and emotional experience

It is evident from cross-cultural research that Americans are more likely to appraise emotional situations as more pleasant when compared to Asians. For instance, Mesquita and Karasawa (p. 68) (2002) found that Americans appraised emotional situations as positively different from neutral; however, Japanese and Taiwanese perceived situations in their lives as neither positive nor negative. Other studies (e.g., Kitayama at al., 2000) also evidenced that Americans were more likely to report a higher frequency of positive than negative emotions than Japanese. These findings are in line with the cultural models that account for the differences between independent and interdependent orientations of the self.

The general assumption is that people want to feel positive emotions (Larsen, 2000), however, the extent to which people want to regulate hedonically (i.e., to dampen their positive emotions or to not savor them) differs across cultures. For example, Americans have been found to mainly focus on the positive aspects of happiness; whereas, Japanese are more likely to indicate negative aspects of happiness more so than positive ones. Research has also shown that Easterners when compared to Westerners are more likely to experience positive and negative emotions in predominantly pleasant situations while no differences are observed in the experience of emotions in predominantly unpleasant situations (Miyamoto, Kumagai, Lang, & Nunn, 2010). According to Gross (1998), these cultural differences in emotional experiences are determined by cultural scripts. The dominant cultural script in Western culture is to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions (Kitayama et al., 2000). On the other hand, the cultural script that is dominant in Eastern culture is characterized by a tendency to seek a middle way by balancing positive and negative emotions.

In many Eastern cultures, emotion moderation which refers to balancing positive emotions is a more preferred emotion regulation strategy (Miyamoto & Ma, 2011). It is also possible to understand the emphasis on positive-negative balance in Eastern cultures by looking at the relationship between positive and negative emotions. Studies have revealed no significant correlation between positive and negative affects among Western samples; whereas, in individualistic cultures there is a negative, though small, correlation (Schimmack, Osihi, & Diener, 2002). This is in line with the findings of other studies that observed that for Americans, positive and negative emotions are opposites, whereas in Eastern cultures all emotions are accepted more readily (Heine et al., 1999; Miyamoto et al., 2010).

Some emotions, such as guilt, are more valued in collectivistic cultures than individualistic cultures; whereas, emotions such as pride are perceived as more positive in individualistic cultures (Eid & Diener, 2001). The intensity and level of arousal of emotions also has a cultural component. For instance, low arousal, pleasant emotions such as relaxation are valued to a greater extent in collectivist cultures given that these emotions promote adjustment to others, while high arousal, pleasant emotions such as excitement, are more valued in individualistic cultures since these emotions promote influencing others (Tsai, Knutson, & Fung, 2006; Tsai et al., 2007). Westerners are also known to be more likely to think that positive emotions are desirable and appropriate and negative emotions are undesirable and inappropriate (Eid & Diener, 2001).

It should be noted, however, that in some cultures, collectivism versus individualism may not be a relevant cultural dimension in terms of emotion regulation. For example, although Mexican culture is a relatively collectivist culture, in this culture there is a culture script called simpatia which basically emphasizes promotion of group harmony through the expression of positive emotion (Triandis, Marin, Lisansky, & Betancourt, 1984). Individuals in this culture tend to prefer high arousal emotions such as enthusiasm over low arousal emotions such as relaxation (Ruby et al., 2012) which contradicts with other studies (e.g., Tsai et al., 2006). Therefore, it is important to recognize that two different collectivist cultures may hold different cultural scripts; thus, researchers should be careful about generalizing their findings.

Cultural differences have also been reported in the prevalence and appreciation of anger, such that anger tends to be less prevalent in interdependent than in independent cultures (Markus & (p. 69) Kitayama, 1991). In a study by Miyake et al. (1986), infants from relatively interdependent cultures were found to react stronger to their mother’s vocal expression of anger (but not joy or fear). This finding was explained in terms of the low frequency of anger in interdependent cultures. Moreover, the control of anger is related to high social functioning among Chinese school children (Zhou et al., 2004). Anger not only occurred in a low frequency in interdependent culture, but individuals from interdependent cultures also tolerated less anger. When anger was expressed in simulated negotiations Asians and Asian Americans made smaller concessions, whereas European Americans made larger concessions (Adam et al., 2010).

Zahn-Waxler et al. (1996) investigated how compared Japanese and American preschool children by investigating how preschoolers reacted to hypothetical interpersonal dilemmas. American, compared to Japanese children were reported to show more anger and undercontrolled emotions such as disorganized, unusual, or incoherent displays of emotion. American mothers also encouraged their children to express emotions more than Japanese mothers. Japanese mothers, on the other hand, used more guilt and anxiety induction strategies and showed disappointment in the child if they failed to meet parental expectations when compared with American mothers. In a study by Lewis and colleagues (2010), white American, black American, and Japanese pre-schoolers were compared on how they reacted to success and failure on a sticker matching task. Results showed that during the failure manipulation condition, American children expressed more sadness than Japanese children. During the success condition, American compared to Japanese children showed more pride; Japanese children, on the other hand, expressed more embarrassment than American children. In discussing this finding, Lewis and colleagues argued that the Japanese children’s greater display of embarrassment across conditions is most likely related to cultural differences in response to being the object of another’s attention.

In attempting to understand the above findings, it is important to note that children are socialized to regulate their emotion in accordance to their cultural script. A study by Miller, Wang, Sandel, and Cho (2002) indicated that American mothers considered it important to highlight their children’s success; Chinese mothers on the other hand considered it important to discipline children. Children’s emotional responses are closely tied to the differences in their parent’s response patterns to an event. For instance, while American parents emphasize their children’s academic success, for Chinese children the case is the opposite (Ng, Pomerantz, & Lam, 2007). In this study it was found that American mothers were more likely to provide positive comments (e.g., “You are so smart!”) than Chinese mothers; Chinese mothers on the other hand were more likely than American mothers to provide neutral and task-relevant statements (e.g., “Did you understand what the questions were asking or did you just randomly guess?”). Furthermore, Chinese children were reported to experience fewer positive emotions after success, and more negative emotions after a failure as compared to American children. Thus, cultural differences in parenting may affect children’s emotional expression towards certain events. Considering the cultural models of the self, it can be argued that being raised in an interdependent context can make it possible to be more sensitive to negative information.

In a recent study by Miyamoto and Ma (2011), Easterners (i.e., East Asian Undergraduates) were found to recall engaging in hedonic emotion regulation less than Westerners (i.e., European American undergraduates) did. They also found cultural differences in emotion regulation to be mediated by dialectical beliefs about positive emotions. Furthermore, cultural differences in emotion that changed over time were partly explained by dialectical beliefs about positive emotions. These findings were interpreted in terms of the role that cultural scripts have in shaping emotion regulation and emotional experiences.

(p. 70) Emotion regulation and psychopathology

An accumulating number of studies have shown a significant association between emotional suppression and psychopathology as well as negative health and social outcomes (Butler et al., 2007; Gross & John, 2003; Srivastava, Tamir, McGonigal, John, & Gross, 2009). For instance anxiety, distress, and depression have been found to be linked with difficulties in emotion regulation (Gross & Munoz, 1995; Mennin et al., 2005). Studies also show that poor emotion regulation predicts eating problems and alcohol abuse (Polivy & Herman, 2002; Tice, Bratslavsky, & Baumeister, 2001). Furthermore, difficulty in emotion regulation is a risk factor for such psychopathologies as social phobia, major depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder (Johnson, 2005; Kashdan & Breen, 2008; Rottenberg, Gross, and Gotlib, 2005). In a recent meta-analysis, Aldao et al. (2010) documented that maladaptive emotion regulation strategies such as avoidance and suppression were associated with psychopathology, whereas adaptive strategies such as reappraisal and acceptance were associated with less psychopathology.

Emotional suppression has been one of the most widely studied emotion regulation strategies. Many studies documented that suppression is a positive predictor of depression and anxiety, and a negative predictor of life satisfaction (Gross & John, 2003; Kashdan & Breen, 2008; Wenzlaff & Luxton, 2003). In particular, anger suppression has been reported to be positively associated with high levels of guilt, irritability, and depression (Martin & Dahlen, 2005). However, most of these studies have been conducted in Western countries which emphasize independent cultural values. Questions have been raised whether this conclusion is universal.

More recent studies have reported that the consequences of suppression are dependent on cultural context. As shown by Butler, Lee, and Gross (2007) female undergraduates with higher Asian values tended to suppress their emotion more often in their daily activities compared to those with European American values. Furthermore, cultural values were found to moderate the relation between emotion suppression and negative social outcomes; specifically, suppression seemed to serve prosocial goals among those with Asian values while among those with Western values, suppression seemed to serve a self-protective function. In interpreting this finding, anger suppression was considered as a form of emotion regulation that promotes social engagement and psychological well-being for interdependent individuals (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). In a study by Cheung and Park (2010) among college students, anger suppression mediated the effects of trait anger and family processes on depression. However, the link between anger suppression and depression was attenuated by an Asian American status.

In one study Soto, Perez, Kim, Lee, and Minnick (2011) found that expressive suppression was linked with poor psychological functioning for European Americans but not for Chinese. Other studies also documented evidence for the positive effect of habitual suppression on negative affectivity in Western cultures (e.g., Butler et al., 2007). These findings are in line with the arguments that since Eastern cultures emphasize interdependence and harmony in social relationships, expressive suppression is more encouraged than in Western cultures in which personal values and independence are more important (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). It is also known that individuals in Eastern cultures emphasize moderation of emotions more than European Americans (Matsumoto, 1993). Many studies showed a positive relationship between the interdependent self and depression (Mak, Law, & Teng, 2011).

Cultural scripts, in relation to the extent to which positive emotions are valued, also have clinical importance. Leu, Wang, and Koo (2011) compared college students from different cultural contexts and found that perceived stress affected depression by means of intensity of positive emotions among European Americans, whereas for immigrant Asians, no such relationship was (p. 71) observed. Additionally, for European Americans, but not immigrant Asians, positive emotions were associated with decreased depression. Furthermore, pure positive emotions predict better health outcomes among Western samples, whereas mixed emotions predict better physical health outcomes among Japanese (Miyamoto & Ryff, 2011).


Despite the general understanding that emotion regulation has a biological basis, the important role of cultural context in emotion regulation has been recognized both theoretically and empirically in recent years (Cheung & Park, 2010). The process of emotion regulation takes place in socio-cultural contexts and thus is affected by the environment in which it occurs. As such, how individuals regulate their emotions is imperative in order to successfully live in social contexts (Keltner & Haidt, 2001; Lazarus, 1991). In this chapter we reviewed research to document to what extent an individual desires to start, intensify, or terminate emotions depends on cultural factors as well as cultural scripts and cultural models of the self.

Several aspects of emotion regulation are influenced by cultural differences such as emotional expression (Matsumoto & Kupperbusch, 2001), cognitive reappraisal (Yeh & Inose, 2002), and emotional suppression (Matsumoto, Yoo, Hirayama, & Petrova, 2005). The larger social context offers standards for what is appropriate to feel and express, and how frequently an emotion regulation strategy is to be used. These standards provide expectations about the ways emotions are regulated (Kitayama et al., 2000; Mesquita, 2001). In Western cultures, promoting one’s autonomy and maintaining a positive self-view serves as important goals for emotion regulation. On the other hand, in many non-Western cultures the most important goal for emotion regulation is meeting the expectations of others and maintaining harmonious relationships.

Most of the cross-cultural research in this field has compared samples selected from Western and non-Western samples and arrived at similarities as well as differences in emotion regulation. For example, studies showed that emotion suppression is quite common among Asians (Gross & John, 1998; Matsumoto et al., 2008) while emotion expression is more common in Western cultures (Kim & Sherman, 2007). Empirical findings also suggest that the same emotion regulation strategies have different effects in different cultures. Although many studies have shown that emotional suppression is associated with psychopathology in Western countries, suppressing emotions leads to positive outcomes for East Asians (Matsumoto et al., 2008). Therefore, behaviors are more likely to appear and feel right when it fits the individual’s goals. Since different socializing practices put differing emphases on autonomy versus harmony, emotion regulation strategies need to be tailored to these goals whilst considering the cultural microcosm in which the person resides.

Despite the increasing studies on the social and cultural differences in emotion regulation, most studies use Japan or China as representations of collectivist cultures and the American as representative of individualistic cultures. More studies are needed in other Western and non-Western cultures in order to reach more reliable and generalizable conclusions. For instance Middle Eastern cultures or cultures balancing both individualism and collectivism may be interesting to compare. Besides, since cultures are not homogenous and often support both autonomy and harmony, within-culture differences should be investigated more closely. Although cross-national comparisons involving cultural variables are common methods of cross-cultural research, countries cannot be considered cultures. The findings obtained from studies in social and cultural aspects of emotion regulation should be examined to determine the degree to which they replicate in other cultural groups.


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