Emotions in Africa

            “Norms for experiencing emotions in Sub-Saharan Africa” was a study done to see the differences in expressing emotions between not only Africa and the rest of the world but also between different African countries. Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe were studied with 1,056 participants involved. Results showed that some African nations were more collectivist than others and if they were a more collectivist nation than guilt was a more desirable trait and pride was a less desirable trait to have than if the country was less collectivist (Kin-Prieto, 2004).

            Past research on African nations showed that they tended to be a more collectivist culture meaning that value is placed not on the individual and independence but on cooperation and interdependence. This means that individuals tried to stick to norms when expressing emotions and not try to deviate or stand out from others. Also, when making life- satisfaction judgments emotional well-being is not valued as much as in an individualistic culture. The literature stated that interpersonal acceptance was related to feelings of joy for South African children whereas in an individualistic culture feelings of joy may be more related to personal achievements. Emotional moderation is valued by people of African nations whereas in America the value is placed on expressing your emotions and “being true to your feelings”. Despite all of these findings, each study done on African nations is very important because so much research has been done on the East vs. the West which generally means Americans and Europeans vs. Asian cultures and Africa is often left out of the equation (Kin-Prieto, 2004).

             The results showed that on the collectivist scale Tanzania showed the lowest collectivism values whereas Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria showed high collectivism values and South Africa was in the middle. For this study the participants had to complete a questionnaire that included items about their personality and how satisfied they are with life, in addition to how they experience different emotions. The questionnaire was translated from English into the local languages which could have been a source of error if it was not translated correctly or showed cultural bias. Eight emotions, joy, affection, pride, contentment, anger, fear, sadness, and guilt, were used in the questionnaire and the participants had to rate how desirable or appropriate these emotions were in their culture.  The emotions were separated by being positive or negative and the negative emotions showed more similarities across all of the countries as being more in the collectivism pattern meaning guilt and sadness were valued but anger was not. However Tanzania once again showed a different pattern where there was more of an individualistic pattern showing that all countries in Africa were not the same. African cultures were shown to be less hedonic than American cultures but more hedonic than Eastern cultures such as China. Hedonic in this case means self-indulgent and pleasure-seeking and they were in the middle for this category. However, Africans disapprove of negative emotions more than both Eastern and Western cultures which I found to be very interesting. Some limitations of this study could have been that they used a latent class analysis which means that smaller sample sizes were used which could have made the study less able to generalize to the entire populations (Kin-Prieto, 2004). 

            Overall, I believe that was a good study and found it helpful to studying the patterns not only between Africa and other continents but also between individual nations within Africa. I think it is hard to define experiencing emotions because the scale just told whether the emotions were desirable or approved of, not whether they actually expressed them which would be important to know. When I visited South Africa I found all of the people in the poverty stricken villages to be very happy and joyful compared to Americans which I found to be quite strange considering that they had next to nothing and Americans have so much. I wonder now if it was because they had negative emotions but were taught not to express them or if they really felt that much joy. Also, the fact that this study found that life satisfaction was not based on emotions as much as in America would be something to study further. This study provided another perspective besides just looking at the Eastern and Western cultures and by further research I can gain more insight into African cultures and how they internalize and express their emotions.

            In another study, “Cultural In-Group Advantage: Emotion Recognition in African American and European American Faces and Voices”, participants were tested to see if they could better recognize emotions in their own cultures than others. The participants included 72 African American students, 102 European American students, 30 African international students, and 30 European international students. All groups had about an equal number of both males and females. The results showed that there was an in-group advantage in determining emotions in African American and European American faces and voices. This leads to the conclusion that there are differences in expressing emotions depending on the culture and emotional expression is not entirely universal (Wickline, 2009). 

            In the literature review from this study the researchers found that when perceiving American emotional expressions shown in photographs, participants outside of the US demonstrated lower emotion recognition accuracy rates than the American participants. This finding contradicted Darwin’s theory, proposed in 1872, that the laws dictating emotional expressions were universal. The reason for this contradiction is that some researchers have proposed that emotional expression and recognition are learned behaviors and therefore would be specific to different cultures. This could also be due to the fact that those in the same culture have more contact with one another and are more familiar with others in their own group. There were several studies that supported the convergence theory which is that individuals who reported greater acculturation to Western culture were more accurate at interpreting the nonverbal behavior of European American individuals than were those with less acculturation. This theory could have impacted this study because the international students were more acculturated with Western culture than other people from their native country who had never traveled to America. This study not only focused on different geographic regions but also different ethnic groups  because the researchers had found previous studies that found that people are more accurate at interpreting emotions that members of their own ethnic group express than that of other ethnic groups (Wickline, 2009).

            The study used various emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear and also used different intensity levels, high and low. The test used was the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy, Adult Facial Expression 2 which has 24 head-and-shoulder photographs of adults, both male and female, showing one of the four emotions and at a specific intensity level. The results showed that European Americans were generally more accurate at recognizing American emotions and voices than were the African internationals, but they were not more accurate than African Americans or European internationals suggesting that when being both an out-group in ethnicity and geographic location it is more difficult to recognize emotions. Some limitations of the study could have been that although most of the international students had been in America for about 2-3 years, they could have visited America earlier or some of the native students could have been immigrants or traveled previously. If the study was longitudinal instead of cross-sectional the results might have been more reliable. The significance of this study is that if there is more trouble indicating emotions in other individuals than not only could there be social problems but also problems in the classroom when it is important to understand nonverbal ques (Wickline, 2009).

            The next study was similar to the previous one in that African American’s ability to identify emotion in facial expressions and tones of voice of European Americans was tested. The Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy was used also in this study and given to 84 African American children participants. The participants in this study were from lower or middle socioeconomic classes and were about 10 years’ old and attended private schools. The study found that African Americans performed less accurately on adult and child tones of voice and adult facial expressions when compared to their European American peers. There was also a difference in genders, for girls, their ability was related to better social skills and achievement, whereas for boys, their ability was related to teacher-rated social competence. Previous research in this study found that the accuracy of sending and receiving of nonverbal cues determines one’s interpersonal success (Collins, 2001).

            Another study was completed in South Africa to determine which graphic symbols 4-yr-old children choose to represent each of the four basic emotions. The four basic emotions are happy, sad, afraid, and angry. The results showed that the children recognized the emotion happy more than the other three emotions. The participants were recruited from five English preschools in Pretoria, South Africa. There were consent forms given to their parents before they were able to participate. There were 13 girls and 13 boys of Caucasian descent. The reason that only these four emotions were chosen was because the children had difficulty differentiating between emotions such as surprise, disgust, and fear. The graphic symbols were selected from Picture Communication Symbols. There were 16 graphic symbols identified. All of the symbols for happy include a mouth with upward lip corners while the symbols for sad have lips or eyelids/eyebrows turned downward. The symbols for afraid all have eyes wide open and the symbols for angry all have turned-down inner corners of the eyebrows. The 16 graphic symbols were randomly arranged 12 different ways on 12 different displays using a randomized function in excel. The display sheets were then made into a booklet for the children. To elicit the emotions three questions were prepared for each emotion so that each participant was asked 12 questions (Visser, 2008).

            The study could be redone using a bigger sample size or using other ethnicities in South Africa to determine if that would have an effect on the graphic symbols used or the recognition of the different emotions. The importance of the results of this study showed that this group of participants used certain symbols to discriminate between emotions such as the mouth played an important role in the recognition of happy and sad whereas the eyes and eyebrows played an important role in the recognition of afraid and angry. This was interesting because in class we found in one study that Westerners often identify emotions by looking at the mouth whereas Easterners, in particular Asians, often identify emotions by looking at the eyes. South African students used both the mouth and the eyes depending on the emotion expressed showing a combination of both the Western and Eastern norms for identifying emotion. With the computer becoming a much more popular form of communication and e-mails replacing face to face communication and phone conversations where a voice could be heard, it is important to see how different graphic symbols are interpreted by different groups of people. The finding that the children, who are only 4 years old, could determine the four basic emotions through symbols and expressions is interesting as research shows that the ability to identify, recognize, decode, and interpret emotion represented by facial expression improves with age. This study was interesting because Izard states that the recognition of emotion across cultures is similar, whereas the labeling of emotions appears to be more culturally specific. She states this because emotion labeling is a more complex response than emotion recognition and since it is more dependent on the cognitive system, than it is subject to more experiential and cultural biases. Previous findings in the literature review of this study also state that it is more difficult to identify graphic symbols as emotions than actual photographs (Visser, 2008).

Overall, these findings are interesting but non conclusive as some contradict one another. It seems however that recognizing emotions is a culturally specific activity even though there are some universal qualities to it. Emotional expression and recognition is a very important aspect of daily life and if someone from another culture cannot understand nonverbal communication such as facial expressions they would have a difficult time with relationships and other social contexts. It seems that in Africa there are many differences in the way emotions are expressed and received depending on the country and the socioeconomic class one comes from. Further research on this topic is needed in order to better understand the cultural aspects of emotions and how they vary from one group to another.

Works Cited

Collins, M, & Nowicki, C. (2001). African american children’s ability to identify emotion in facial expressions and tones of voice of european americans. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 162.

Kin-Prieto, C, & Eid, M. (2004). Norms for experiencing emotions in sub-saharan africa. Journal of Happiness studies, 5(1573-7780 ), Retrieved from http://proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/login?ins=tu&url=http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2004-21449-003&site=ehost-live doi: 10.1007/s10531-004-8787-2

Kwon, J, Delaney-Black, V, Covington, C, Abell, S, & Nordstrom-Bailey, B. (2004). The Relations between maternal expressed emotion and children’s perceived self-competence, behavior and intelligence in african-american families. Early Child Development and Care, 176(1476-8275), doi: 10.1080/0300443042000302681

Visser, N, Alant, E, & Harty, M. (2008). Which Graphic symbols do 4-year-old children choose to represent each of the four basic emotions?. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 24(1477-3848), doi: 10.1080/07434610802467339

Wickline, V, Bailey, W, & Nowicki, S. (2009). Cultural in-group advantage: emotion recognition in afrcan american and european american faces and voices. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 170.

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