It is our pleasure to announce the winner for Harry and Pola Triandis Doctoral Thesis Award for 2020. The winner was selected out of 19 applications which were reviewed by eight adjudicators. The winner is Alexander Kirchner-Hausler from University of Leuven, Belgium (Ph.D. completed May 29th, 2019)
Dissertation Title: “The Relationality of Feelings: A cultural comparison of affective patterns in Western and East-Asian relationships” (Supervisor: Batja Mesquita.)
Ice cubes and heated discussions:
Studying cultural differences in emotions, relationships, and interactions
I am very honored to receive the Henry and Pola Triandis Doctoral Thesis Award for my thesis studying cultural differences in emotions within social relationships and interactions. In many different ways my doctoral project has been part of a challenging and exciting journey, and many personal relationships along the way.
I grew up in a relatively small, traditional town westward of Frankfurt am Main, Germany. My entire family had been from the same region and never moved far, and, aside from the occasional trip to the city, my childhood mostly played out on the very narrow stage of a few neighboring towns. But I clearly remember the moment when a fascination with culture entered my life for the first time. During middle school, a classmate had made the unusual decision to spend a term at a school in Kansas, US. When she returned from what we viewed as an exotic experience, she invited us to her parents’ garden to celebrate. We were struck by how much she had changed during her year abroad: A once rather reserved and withdrawn girl had turned into a self-assured, confident, and incredibly positive person. Sharing details of her time in Kansas, she told us about the particular hot summer that year, and we asked how she had handled it. After a second of thinking, she replied, “Well, you know, when it’s super-hot, and you have these large ice cubes, and they melt…” At that point, she must have noticed the puzzled look on our faces, because she paused and started laughing – she hadn’t even noticed that she had switched from German to fluent English when thinking back of her time in the US. I doubt she would remember any of this, but for me it was a very significant moment: For the first time in my life, I had experienced a taste of how much more there is to the world than my hometown, region, and even country, and that venturing out and experiencing the world can profoundly change people at their core – a baffling realization for a fourteen-year-old. Looking back, I like to think that it was this moment that sparked my interest in the influence of culture on our lives.
And so culture remained a part of my life in the years to come, from a term abroad in the United States during my undergraduate studies, to gap years to travel the mountains of Ecuador and see masses of snow in Canada, to sharing my own culture with others as a local guide to researchers and students visiting Frankfurt. Over the course of my studies, I was also fortunate enough to meet teachers and supervisors who encouraged students to think about culture, and I was able to work a cultural perspective into both my undergraduate and MSc thesis. And I was therefore understandably excited when my supervisor Rupert Brown forwarded an email to me about a PhD position on cultural differences in emotions and relationships at the University of Leuven, Belgium, an opportunity which would eventually lead to my doctoral thesis.
Culture, Relationships, and Emotions
Think about the last time you had a disagreement with somebody close to you. Maybe it was your romantic partner, your friends, or your children. How did you feel? Angry, sympathetic, annoyed, optimistic, ashamed, elated? How did that situation unfold: was it a heated exchange of snippy remarks, a calm negotiation of viewpoints, a mutual process of perspective taking and empathy? And finally, do you feel like the course of the interaction benefitted your needs or your relationship? The diplomatic and nuanced answer to these questions would likely be: it depends on where you come from.
Much research in cultural psychology has highlighted that what people value in their personal lives, and in their relationships with others, often differs between cultures: for example, Western cultures appear to put a premium on individual agency, happiness, and self-worth, whereas East-Asian cultures appear to emphasize self-adjustment, relationship harmony, and interconnectedness. Our emotions play a critical role when it comes to forming and maintaining these relationships: they are inherently social phenomena that reflect and communicate our goals, values and needs to close others, and help us negotiate and shape relationships in ways that are (culturally) appropriate and fulfilling (Mesquita, 2010). Some emotions may fit and support cultural relationship goals and practices, and are thus often experienced relatively more frequently and intensely, whereas others may fit less or even go against cultural relationship goals and practices, and thus be experienced less frequently and intensely (e.g., Boiger et al., 2013). Thus, our emotions may vary as a function of the relationship goal and practices in a cultural context.
However, while cultural differences in emotions had been supported by a variety of different studies and cultural settings, the methodology to study these differences had not quite caught up with the theoretical thinking. Most cross-cultural studies resorted to studying emotions in a manner that treated them as isolated, stable entities within individuals, using online questionnaires, stimulus photo sets, or brain scans. Yet, the majority of our emotions is experienced in social contexts, and newer studies had highlighted the many ways partners in relationships may influence each other’s emotions over time, jointly shaping emotional experience as interactions and relationships unfolded. If emotions are social phenomena that may vary with cultural relationship models, and partners jointly shape emotions in their relationships, should we not study cultural differences in emotions in the course of social interactions between actual relationship partners?
The Project: Studying Culture in Interactions
This question was the starting point of my doctoral studies when I arrived in Leuven, Belgium, in October 2014. My doctoral project, supervised by Batja Mesquita, Michael Boiger, and Peter Kuppens, was designed to explore how cultural differences in emotions would emerge and unfold within interactions of actual couples. At the time, relatively few studies had taken such a more in-situ approach to study culture and emotions (early studies by Jeanne Tsai or Gisela Trommsdorf being notable exceptions), but their results had been encouraging. Furthermore, we ourselves conducted a preliminary test of the idea that emotions and emotion patterns would vary if we specifically zoomed in on interpersonal situations: data from two studies showed that emotion patterns between two emotions (anger and shame) varied systematically across cultures in both self-reported and hypothetical social situations, and in line with the fit of emotions with cultural relationship models. We felt confident to get started.
Our “Couple Interaction Project” ran from October 2014 to April 2017. It took place in two very different cultural settings: Leuven, Belgium, where we developed a lot of the setup and my research team and I led the data collection, and in Kyoto, Japan, where Prof Yukiko Uchida, Michael Boiger, and the amazing team of the Kokoro Research Center coordinated and supervised the local counterpart. In an effort to beyond student samples, we decided to work with adult couples in long-term partnerships, in hope that these firmly established relationships would provide rich ground for observing interaction patterns. Yet, as a result we also faced many additional challenges in our recruitment efforts (e.g. effective outreach, compensation, or the logistics of trips from more residential areas to our lab space), and as a result we unfortunately had to make the early decision to stop data collection in the United States, where we (with the help of Yulia Chentsova-Dutton, and Lisa Feldman-Barrett) had originally also started to setup part of our project.
The project itself was divided into different phases. We started with a preliminary questionnaire, to validate our measures in the different cultures, adjust our instruments, and finalize our design for the remaining phases. Then, at the heart of our project, stood the lab interaction: couples visited our lab in Belgium and Japan, and took part in a series of questionnaires and interaction tasks together. In order to elicit emotional interactions, we decided to build upon a design with a long history in relationship research: couples would sit together and have a conversation about a recent topic of disagreement in their relationship, chosen from a list they had filled out at home before their visit. Afterwards, they completed some further questionnaires, separately watched the videos of their interaction again, and reported on their emotional experience during the interaction: First, we assessed a selection of twelve emotions (validated in the preliminary questionnaire) every 30 seconds, before asking participants in a second session for a continuous rating of how positive and negative they felt during the interaction. Finally, there was a follow-up phase, in which we contacted couples again after 6 months for some more information.
As always is the case in cross-cultural research, we encountered numerous interesting challenges when trying to adjust such a complex paradigm to different cultural contexts: For example, in previous interaction studies the discussed conflict topic was sampled from a pre-visit questionnaire, and then probed by a research assistant in the presence of the couple prior to the conversation. Japanese couples viewed this as a breach of privacy – after all, they had indicated their grievances privately and this hinted at their personal responses, which they may not have discussed with their partner for various reasons, and surely would not discuss with a complete stranger. Another example was consent – Belgian couples were much more reluctant to consent to any use of their videos before knowing how the interactions actually had turned out. Other problems were more logistic: we had to find suitable furniture to make the rooms comparable across cultures, train junior students in the often fickle balance between study procedure, proper etiquette, and necessary ounce of flexibility, and create a workflow that managed couples efficiently from start to finish. As most adult couples had kids, we often had to offer babysitting services, and organize parking or transport for couples coming from outside the city. The scope of the project meant that many details had to be considered, some expected, many unexpected, and a lot of effort and time went into addressing these issues as best as possible.
The actual visit was understandably the most challenging (but, personally, also most fun) part. We researchers had to learn and perform a very intricate “dance” in the background to keep things moving efficiently: preparing individualised conflict issue list and consent sheets in time, setting up our technical equipment, preparing questionnaires and computers in advance, making sure the sound and cameras were working and arranged in precise angles, and, of course, eventually instructing and guiding the couples through the many sections of a long 90-minute appointment (of which often there were multiple a day). Time slots were measured tightly: couples often arrived after work, sacrificing their free time and counting on us to coordinate everything efficiently and without time loss. For security reasons the testing computers in our Leuven lab were not connected to the internet, so our daily cardio came from sprinting down the hallway to transfer a USB stick with the just recorded and converted videos moments before the start of the recall session. The most minute details were planned out beforehand and trained extensively, culminating in a step-by-step guide that spanned 26 pages. I feel immensely grateful towards our two teams in Leuven (Elien Joos, Judith Wauters, Anke Bruninx, and Anne van Gans) and Kyoto (Yukiko Uchida, and her team Maiko Komura, Mika Hattori, Yoko Higuchi, Nami Nishizawa, Ryota Takano, Daichi Takami, and Atsuhiko Uchida), whose drive and hard work made such an ambitious project as smooth as it ever could have been.
As data collection progressed, I became more and more interested in how the interactions of Belgian and Japanese couples would differ in terms of positive and negative feelings. Previous cultural work had shown that the preference for positive over negative feelings was often attenuated in East-Asian compared to Western samples, a finding often explained by differences in cultural goals (individual happiness and self-esteem in Western, and relational harmony and self-adjustment in East-Asian cultures) and in prevalent systems of thought (e.g., analytical and non-dialectical in Western, holistic and dialectical in East-Asian cultures). Furthermore, two first studies by Yuri Miyamoto and colleagues had recently examined cultural differences in emotions over time and supported the idea that emotions may unfold in different ways depending on their fit with the cultural context. In our continuous recall of positive and negative feelings we had a very nice and detailed assessment of affective valence for our own interactions. Could we find any indication that couples navigated something as fundamental and “simple” as positive and negative feelings in their relationships in joint and culturally functional ways?
Cultural differences in Emotional Interactions
The results of my doctoral thesis suggest that we can, to a certain extent. In line with the idea that positive feelings may fit and support Western relationship goals of personal happiness and self-worth, the interactions of Belgian couples were generally characterized by higher levels of positive feelings than those of Japanese couples, as well as by more frequent emotional sequences that support the experience of positive feelings. In contrast, the interactions of Japanese couples were characterized relatively less by positive feelings, but instead showed higher levels of more neutral feelings and more frequent emotional patterns supporting the experience of neutral feelings; we saw this as fitting cultural relationship goals of preventing relational disruption through intense emotions as well as an emphasis on the relationship over the individual needs or happiness of partners.
These cultural tendencies showed themselves in a variety of ways. When we compared the proportions of positive to negative feelings in the interactions between cultures, we found that Belgian couples showed markedly more positive ratios than Japanese couples did: On average, Belgian couples reported 20 seconds of positive feelings for every second of negative feelings, compared to only 4 seconds of positive feelings for every second of negative feelings in Japanese couples. While Belgian couples did report more positive feelings overall than Japanese couples, this may also have been a result of more frequent neutral feelings in Japanese couples. Interestingly, cultural differences in negative feelings were minimal, possibly due to our choice of examining emotions in the context of conflict interactions. In addition to these overall differences, we found similar results in the course of the emotional interactions, i.e. the patterns by which they unfolded over time. Belgian couples were more likely than Japanese couples to move from more affectively neutral states towards states that were more positive, and were especially more likely to remain in states of shared positivity, once they had entered them, suggesting that shared positivity may represent an especially valued cultural state. In contrast, Japanese couples were not only more likely than Belgian couples to move out of states in which both partners reported positive feelings, but also to remain in states in which both partners felt neutral, once they had entered them, again potentially highlighting the lower desirability of positive feelings and the potential link of more neutral feelings with preventing relational disruption.
Finally, cultural differences in emotions also appeared in role of feelings for appropriate and fulfilled relationships in different cultures. We found that, with increasing levels of relationship satisfaction, couples in both cultures showed greater proportions of positive to negative feelings, but this effect was much stronger for Belgian than for Japanese couples. Furthermore, while more satisfied Belgian couples showed these higher proportions through increased levels of positive feelings, more satisfied Japanese couples did so through decreased levels of negative feelings, pointing to possible differences in promotion (happiness, need fulfilment) or prevention (relational disruption) focus in relationships. These results were complemented by the emotional sequences in the interactions: in both cultures, interactions of more satisfied couples showed less frequent emotional patterns that got them “stuck” in regions of negative affect. However, whereas moving out of negative affect regions completely was a further indicator for higher satisfaction in Japan, more satisfied Belgian couples showed signs of more frequently moving into states of shared positivity, and then remaining there, again emphasizing the importance of positive feelings.
Taken together, my thesis thus largely supports the idea that culture meaningfully shapes emotions as well as emotional patterns in close relationships and interactions. Cultural differences emerged both in overall levels and patterns of feelings as interactions of Belgian and Japanese couples unfolded, and these differences appear to be interpretable from the fit of emotions with cultural relationship models. Overall, these results can also be seen as a further step to mapping how cultural differences in emotions emerge dynamically, and the scope of the project and large amount of data that still remains will hopefully allow for more insights into these processes in the future. For example, in a recent study we were also able to extend some of our insights to the data for discrete emotions. Analyzing the most prominent “attractor states” (i.e., states that frequently occur and recur over the course of the interactions), we found that the most salient attractor states in the two cultures aligned with cultural relationship models of independence in Belgium (as e.g. in mutual annoyance), and interdependence in Japan (as e.g. in mutual empathy), and that having interactions more similar to the cultural average was linked higher levels of autonomy and relationship satisfaction in Belgian couples (but not Japanese couples). Undoubtedly, there is still much more to explore.
Having the chance to take part in this project has been both a challenging and also very enriching experience. While doctoral theses are often associated with one person, of course none of this would have been possible without the efforts and support of many, many people, and it is comforting to me to think about this award as honouring our work and excellence as a team more than anything. I also hope that this small insight into what it was like to conduct such a project may serve as an inspiration for others to follow suit: interactional research can be demanding and labour-intensive, but also appears to represent a promising avenue to study cultural processes as they unfold between people and over time. It is encouraging to see that the number of studies using interactions and dyads to study culture has started to increase in recent years (see, for example, Halford et al., 2018 and related studies). Sure, as every study we had some major hiccups along the way: from the break-in to our lab space that left us without cameras and equipment, to many hours spent in a lab without windows during a 30-degree summer heatwave, to the terrorist attack on Brussels Zaventem airport in 2016 that put a lot of our planning on hold, to name a few. But being part of this project has given me the chance to not only learn more about a force that started to fascinate me so many years ago in my friend’s parent’s garden, but also to meet and build relationships with many inspiring people all over the world, and feel many of the beautiful emotions that come along with them (mostly profound gratitude).
Boiger, M., Mesquita, B., Uchida, Y., & Feldman Barrett, L. (2013). Condoned or Condemned: The Situational Affordance of Anger and Shame in the United States and Japan. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(4), 540–553. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167213478201
Halford, W. K., Lee, S., Hiew, D. N., & van de Vijver, F. J. R. (2018). Indirect couple communication and relationship satisfaction in Chinese, Western, and Chinese-Western intercultural couples. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(3–4), 183–200. https://doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000109 Mesquita, B. (2010). Emoting: A contextualized process. In B. Mesquita, L. F. Barrett, & E. R. Smith (Eds.), The mind in context (pp. 83-104). New York, NY: Guilford.