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Emotional signals cross cultures

By Doreen Walton

Science reporter, BBC News

January, 2010

People are able to recognise negative sounds, like expressions of disgust, across
cultures, say scientists.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tested

understanding between two groups.

Westerners were compared to semi-nomadic people from a remote area of Namibia in

southern Africa.

The researchers found sounds indicating

negative emotions were widely understood by
both groups but positive emotions were mainly

Dr Disa Sauter from University College London

travelled into remote northern Namibia to find
members of the semi-nomadic Himba people to
take part.

"It was important to find a group which had not

had cultural exchanges with other groups," said
Dr Sauter.

Both groups enjoyed the experiments. "The

people we tested seemed to find the task
hilarious. It was fun to do a task that most
people enjoy, which for psychology
experiments isn't always the case," she added.

The participants were told short emotional

stories, for example, a sad one. They were then
played two sounds, one sad and one
representing another emotion, and asked to
match the corresponding sound with the story.
If someone tastes something and goes 'eeeurgh'
that's... got a much more basic role

The so called "basic" [primary] emotions of anger, sadness, fear, disgust and surprise
were most identifiable.

Happiness was divided up into achievement or triumph, relief, amusement and

sensual pleasure. Only amusement, signified by laughter, translated well.

"It's rather nice that laughter has this apparent universality and it would make sense,"
said Professor Sophie Scott, another member of the research team.

"Laughter would seem to be found in all human cultures and humans aren't the only
mammals that laugh."

Professor Scott explained that communicating negative emotions is important.

"If I make an angry sound it's important that you should know what that means and if I
make a fearful sound it's important you recognise that too because it might be
because of something that would scare you too."

The scientists believe that positive emotions may not travel as well because they are
used in more culture-specific ways to manage social bonds. Cheering for example was
not recognised.

"If someone tastes something and pulls a disgusted face and goes 'eeeurgh' that's
forming quite a different role. It's not to do with group cohesion. It's got a much more
basic role saying 'stay away from that'," said Professor Scott.

The researchers plan to look next at why some emotional expressions are infectious,
such as laughter, and the social role that plays.