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Emotions have become often the subject of many songs and films because these pertain to people’s responses to certain things in their lives. For example, when a woman is extremely angry at her husband when she caught him cheating on her, she may lose control of herself and would express this by verbalizing her anger at him in front of other people. Because of this, the husband will, in turn, feel an emotion of embarrassment because his wife has lost control of her anger in public. It is a fact that sometimes emotions are difficult to control and this is a reason why some emotions can be a dangerous threat to morality and rationality. Emotions like joy and disappointment, sadness and surprise, envy and pride, and dozens of other emotions accompany our daily lives regardless of where we live or what language we speak. In fact, we already display emotions from the day we are born.
As early as during the time of Plato (c. 430–347 BCE), people were already interested on how emotions are produced. Plato tackled emotion as an important aspect of three agencies within the person, along with reason and desire. In his book The Republic, Plato noted that although emotions are commonly taxed with irrationality, they frequently side with reason against impulsive desire. This picture of the role of emotions in the human person had three notable features: it was designed to account for inner conflict; it acknowledged the thought-dependent character of emotion, which differentiates them from mere sensory feelings; and it recognized that emotions are not merely complexes of beliefs and desires. Even Charles Darwin in 1872, examined the evolution of emotional responses and facial expressions. Darwin was convinced that emotions allow an organism to make adaptive responses to salient stimuli in the environment, thus enhancing its chances of survival (Kringelbach, 1987). In reality, both animals and humans signal their readiness or willingness to help, fight, or run through gestures, postures, and facial expressions. Imagine, for example, a girl is holding a box. When she opened it, her eyes grew wide open, she screamed and she threw the box away. This combination of reactions might alert another person to the fact that it is likely this girl is scared or disgusted by something she found in the box. Most likely, her mom will check to see if anything was in her box, like a frog or anything which produced that emotion. This is why we can say that emotions regulate social behavior and may protect people from danger. Fear and anger, for example, produce greater acceleration of heart rate than joy. This makes sense if one thinks in evolutionary terms. Anger and fear are related to fight-or-flight responses that require the heart to pump more blood to the muscles: all in all, you have to either defend yourself or run away from a threat. In people of all cultures, fear causes a particular defensive reaction in dangerous situations. Likewise, disgust prevents us from trying potentially toxic substances such as rotten food or spoiled water (Izard 1977, p. 56).
On the physiological mechanisms of emotions, it has been found that people detect stimuli from our surroundings and our body. The signal then goes to the brain and the amygdala serves as the brain’s “emotional computer”: it assesses the affective significance of the stimulus. Therefore, irrelevant stimuli may cause no emotion. Then the hypothalamus, as a part of the limbic system, activates sympathetic and endocrine responses related to emotion. The brain’s cortex also plays several roles with respect to emotion, particularly in the appraisal of stimuli. Moreover, the right hemisphere is believed to be responsible for the facial displays of emotion (Borod, 1992). Another research by Davidson (1992) suggested that pleasant emotions are associated with the activation of the left frontal cortex, whereas unpleasant emotions are mostly associated with the activation of the right frontal lobe.
It is also important to note that our emotions are also attached to our cultural upbringing. People are usually aware of their emotions and they feel good or bad, scared, surprised, frustrated, or relieved at different times. Despite tremendous individual variations, there are some cultural norms and rules that regulate our evaluations of emotions. Ellsworth (1994) proved that there is evidence that people may carry cultural beliefs about which emotions are most significant or suitable to particular social roles or social settings. For example, some emotions could be considered inappropriate and therefore suppressed, such as feeling envious of your brother’s or sister’s success. Other emotions may be absolutely legitimate and even desirable, such as feeling joy after recovering from an illness. These evaluations are attached to the situation in which an emotional response is anticipated. Pay attention, for example, to how many people react to so-called “ethnic jokes.” They may laugh at a joke that ridicules members of a particular, if the joke teller is a representative of the ethnic group about which the joke is being told. If there is no ethnic “match” between the teller and the joke, or the teller is not your good friend, you may feel disappointed or angry.
In other words, if emotions are cultural and social products, the cultural norms and environmental factors should regulate the ways people express their emotions (Kitayama & Markus, 1995). Perhaps then it shouldn’t be a surprise that surveys reveal a very low admission level of personal happiness and lower overall expression of one’s satisfaction with life in countries going through economic and social crises. Russia and Ukraine, for instance, scored the lowest on individual expression of happiness among other European countries studied (Glad & Shiraev, 1999). Likewise, an ongoing social conflict may elicit and reinforce particular emotional responses. To illustrate, in several experimental situations, Israeli subjects responded more aggressively than their U.S. counterparts (Margalit & Mauger, 1985). When a social situation requires an individual to be “tough,” one’s display of anger may become an adaptive response to stressful situations of ethnic conflict.
There are also cultural variations in the display of emotions. Tahitians report feeling tired in response to losses (Levy, 1973). Crying among the Bedouins in the Egyptian desert (Abu-Lughod, 1986) is considered a sign of weakness, whereas in other Islamic cultures, such as the Turkish, it is considered an acceptable social response in particular circumstances. Display rules differ not only by culture but also by gender. Brody and Hall (1993) suggested that women probably express emotions more intensely and openly than do men. This is true for all emotions except anger. Women are generally more comfortable in displaying emotions such as love, happiness, shame, guilt, and sympathy, which foster affiliation and care-taking. Men, however, avoid these “soft” emotions that display, according to their opinion, male vulnerabilities.
In terms of controlling emotions, it is helpful to discuss how emotions and thought are closely linked. In fact, emotions can influence the way people make judgments and predictions (Mayer et al., 1992). Vice versa, people’s thoughts and beliefs influence their emotions. There is ample evidence that emotional states may shape cognitive processing in different ways. Beck (1991) reported that people who are depressed tend to underestimate the probability of their own success and overestimate the probability of bad events occurring in the future. People who experience positive affect differ from those who experience negative affect. The former have better memory and use different strategies for problem solving and categorization (Clore et al., 1994). Anger has been found to lead to more personal accusations, whereas sadness leads to a tendency to understand negative circumstances as more due to fate, chance, or unluckiness (Keltner et al.,1993).
Ultimately, in understanding emotions it is helpful that we should see it as a multi-componential process. It generally includes the following components: preceding event, physiological response, assessment, expressive behavior, and change in some element of cognitive functioning. In different cultures, there are also specific types of stimuli that mark basic emotions. Despite tremendous individual variations, there are some cultural norms and conditions that regulate emotional experience. Some cultural differences may still be found in the different degrees to which certain emotional responses are tolerated or valued. Human emotional expression is generally acquired in the process of socialization. Cultural differences may result in differences in emotion-related cognitive processes. Nevertheless, it is clear that emotions are evolutionarily important for animals and humans in preparing for appropriate actions. Thus, we can say that emotion may be one of evolution’s most productive breakthroughs, constantly reminding us that we are still animals at heart, but endowed with the possibility of conscious appraisal and enhanced control of our subjective experience that comes with it.
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