Thursday, May 23, 2013

Culture can affect your attention to emotional information

Culture has many influences on our daily behavior.  Some of these effects are obvious.  Americans watch football and baseball, while Europeans watch soccer (which they consider to be the real football).  Other influences are less obvious, because they direct the kinds of information that we pay attention to.

An interesting example of this role of culture was provided in a paper in the February, 2012 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Igor Grossmann, Phoebe Ellsworth, and Ying-Yi Hong.  They explored how cultures affect the way people pay attention to emotional information in the environment.

The starting point for these studies is the observation that Russian culture is stereotypically characterized by negative feelings.  That is, Russians themselves will say that they focus on negative feelings more often than Americans will.

In one study, American and Russian college students were asked to study a series of pictures.  Some of these pictures were neutral pictures of clouds.  Others were positive happy pictures, and still others were negative sad pictures.  The participants were shown the pictures one at a time on a computer screen and were told to press the space bar on the computer when they were done studying each picture.  They were told that there would be a memory test later in the study.  Compared to the neutral pictures of the clouds, Americans looked at the positive pictures longer than the negative pictures.  In contrast, the Russians looked at the negative pictures longer than the positive pictures.

Of course, there are many possible reasons for this result.  Perhaps the negative pictures happened to contain images that were particularly relevant or interesting to the Russians for reasons other than the emotion expressed in the picture.

A second experiment used a clever manipulation of culture.  This study focused on Russian Latvians.  Latvian culture has more European influences than Russian culture.  Russian Latvians are bicultural.  That is, they tend to show influences of both cultures.

In this study, participants were shown strings of letters (like BRANE) and were asked whether the letters formed a word by pressing one button if it was a word and another button if it was not.  (In the case of BRANE, the answer would be ‘no’.)  The strings of letters that were actual words in this study were Latvian adjectives that were either positive (like friendly) or negative (like lazy). 

Here is the really clever part.  Before seeing the string of letters, participants saw pictures that were either symbols of Latvian culture, symbols of Russian culture, or neutral pictures.  Previous work has shown that this procedure does a good job of priming the cultural mindset related to the picture.

When these participants saw Latvian cultural symbols, they responded more quickly to positive words than to negative words (compared to the baseline of the neutral pictures).  When these same participants saw Russian symbols, they responded more quickly to negative words than to positive words.  This result reinforces the conclusion that Russian culture leads people to pay more attention to negative information in the environment.

These results are fascinating, because they suggest that culture can affect your more general mood by affecting what you pay attention to in the world.  If your culture leads you to look at positive things, then that will help to lift your mood.  If your culture leads you to look at negative things, then that will tend to depress your mood.

How can culture have an effect like this?  One of the most powerful ways that cultures affect our thinking is through communication.  If everyone around you is focused on sad things and they talk about sad things, you will start to do the same thing.  In general, you want to be able to talk with the people around you.  If you know that they are going to be thinking about the sad aspects of life, you are going to start to look for that sadness in order to be a part of the conversation.  In the end, that affects the way you think, even when you are not in a situation where you have to communicate with others.