Emotions Are Understood From Biological Motion Across Remote Cultures

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Abstract

Patterns of bodily movement can be used to signal a wide variety of information, including emotional states. Are these signals reliant on culturally learned cues or are they intelligible across individuals lacking exposure to a common culture? To find out, we traveled to a remote Kreung village in Ratanakiri, Cambodia. First, we recorded Kreung portrayals of 5 emotions through bodily movement. These videos were later shown to American participants, who matched the videos with appropriate emotional labels with above chance accuracy (Study 1). The Kreung also viewed Western point-light displays of emotions. After each display, they were asked to either freely describe what was being expressed (Study 2) or choose from 5 predetermined response options (Study 3). Across these studies, Kreung participants recognized Western point-light displays of anger, fear, happiness, sadness, and pride with above chance accuracy. Kreung raters were not above chance in deciphering an American point-light display depicting love, suggesting that recognizing love may rely, at least in part, on culturally specific cues or modalities other than bodily movement. In addition, multidimensional scaling of the patterns of nonverbal behavior associated with each emotion in each culture suggested that similar patterns of nonverbal behavior are used to convey the same emotions across cultures. The considerable cross-cultural intelligibility observed across these studies suggests that the communication of emotion through movement is largely shaped by aspects of physiology and the environment shared by all humans, irrespective of differences in cultural context.

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