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Behaviour Research and Therapy 41 (2003) 777793

Cultural differences in emotions: a context for interpreting

emotional experiences
B. Mesquita , R. Walker
Department of Psychology, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC 27109, USA
Received 26 February 2002; accepted 12 March 2002


In this article, it is suggested that cross-cultural assessment of emotional disturbances would benefit from
the consideration of cultural differences in the modal, and normative emotions. A summary of the research
literature on cultural differences in emotions, in particular in antecedent events, subjective feeling, appraisal,
and behavior is provided. Cultural differences in emotions are understood functionally, such that the most
prevalent emotional phenomena in a culture are those that fit and reinforce the distinct cultural models
(i.e. goals and practices) of self and relationship. It is argued that a culture-sensitive approach to emotional
disturbances would entail the assessment of emotional phenomena that are dysfunctional to the cultural
models of self and relationship.
2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Culture; Functionality; Emotional disturbance; Emotion; Appraisal; Behavior

1. Introduction

Emotions vary across cultures. That is, there are cultural differences in the prevalent, modal,
and normative emotional responses (Mesquita, in press; Mesquita, Frijda, & Scherer, 1997). This
has important implications for the assessment of emotional disturbances. Emotional disturbances
have been defined as excesses in emotions, deficits in emotions, or the lack of coherence in
emotional components (Kring, 2001, p. 337). Implicit in the definitions of emotional disturbances
is the standard of comparison, the prevalent, modal, and normative practices of emotions. As
these practices vary across different cultural contexts, we propose that emotional disturbances are

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E-mail address: (B. Mesquita).

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778 B. Mesquita, R. Walker / Behaviour Research and Therapy 41 (2003) 777793

to some extent relative to the cultural emotion norms and practices that form their context (Jenkins,
1994, 1996).
The main focus of this article will be to provide a general synthesis of the patterns of available
research findings on cross-cultural differences in emotions. From those differences in emotion
practices, we will infer some hypotheses on the potential consequences for emotional disturbances
across cultures. To date, very little empirical evidence exists that allows for evaluation of these
Importantly, our attempt to contextualize emotional disturbances is not to suggest that deviant
emotional phenomena are merely socially constructed as emotional disturbances. This point of
view would deny the real suffering involved in many emotional disturbances. It would also be
inconsistent with evidence cited by the World Health Organization that certain patterns of
emotional disturbances, as they occur in mental and behavioral disorders, are found across many
different cultures (Murthy et al., 2001). Yet, insight in the differences in culturally functional
emotional lives will facilitate and enhance the assessment of dysfunctional or disturbed emotions
in ways described in this article.

2. Conceptualization of cultural differences in emotions

Emotions are biological as well as socio-cultural in nature. Much cross-cultural research on

emotions has focused on the universal, biological aspects of emotions (Kitayama & Markus, 1994;
Mesquita & Frijda, 1992). The socio-cultural aspects of emotions have been largely ignored, at
least in psychology. More recently, several steps have been made towards conceptualization of
emotions that allows the finding of cross-cultural differences in the phenomena.
First, many current emotion theories (e.g. Ellsworth, 1994; Frijda, 1986; Lang, 1988; Scherer,
1984) conceive of emotions as configurations of outcomes of multiple aspects, such as appraisal,
action readiness, autonomic nervous system activity, and behavioral goal setting. These different
aspects of emotions do not automatically follow from each other. Each has its own determinants
in addition to the eliciting event. Thus, the emergent emotion (Feldman Barrett, 1998, 2001) is
constituted by the independent outcomes of the emotion components and may vary from one
occurrence to the next. This view is in stark contrast with the idea that emotions are basic,
invariant states of the body that can be turned on and off (Mesquita, 2001).
Furthermore, building on these multi-aspect theories of emotions, Mesquita et al. have dis-
tinguished between emotional practicesthe actual emotions that people experience and
expressand the potential for emotionsthe emotional responses that people are capable of hav-
ing in principle (Mesquita & Ellsworth, 2001; Mesquita et al., 1997). As emotions unfold, people
select and activate outputs from the emotional potential. The combined outputs form the emotional
practice, or experience (Mesquita, in press). Whereas many cross-cultural studies traditionally
focused on the potential for emotions (e.g. the potential to recognize facial expressions in similar
way Ekman et al., 1987; Izard, 1994), cultural differences in emotions are primarily to be expected
at the level of emotional practices. In fact, work on emotional practices in other disciplines, such
as anthropology, does reveal cultural differences in the prevalence, patterns, and specific contexts
of emotional outputs in a given culture (Abu-Lughod, 1986; Briggs, 1970; Levy, 1973; Lutz,
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Research on culture and emotion has also been furthered by adopting systematic approaches
to culture that have allowed for the understanding and prediction of cultural differences in
emotions in a coherent and effective way (e.g. Kitayama, Matsumoto, Markus, & Norasakkunkit,
1997; Mesquita, in press). These systematic approaches start from the cultural models of what is
good, particularly in the domains of self and relationships. Cultural models involve beliefs as
well as social practices that underwrite and afford what is moral, imperative, and desirable (e.g.,
Bruner, 1986; Hofstede, 2001) For example, a prevalent middle class American cultural model
emphasizes personal success due to ones own contributions, whereas a prevalent middle class
Japanese cultural model underlines the fit with ones social environment. These cultural models
are hypothesized to be important constituents of the emotion practice.
Emotional practices differ across cultures when there are cultural differences in the likelihood
that certain outputs are selected (Mesquita, in press). For example, Americans tend to appraise
positive as well as negative events in terms of personal agency (Mesquita & Ellsworth, 2001).
Consistent with the American cultural model that underlines the importance of ones own contri-
butions to positive outcomes, Americans have been found to claim agency for positive outcomes
whereas agency was much less prevalent in cultures that stress fate and multi-determination (see
Section 3.8) (Mesquita, Karasawa, Haire, & Izumi, in preparation). Thus, the cultural likelihood
of particular emotional outputsagency appraisals in this casedepends on the centrality of the
emotional output to the pertinent cultural models. Outputs are less likely to occur when they are
at odds with the cultural model, whereas outputs consistent with the cultural model are more
likely to be activated.
The introduction of cultural models as a context for understanding and predicting emotional
phenomena does not build on the assumption that cultures are homogenous groups of people. As
individuals in a culture will engage the model in different ways, their individual experiences will
differ as well (Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997). What is critical, though, is that the world
the ways in which things are done in the culturestill powerfully reflects the dominant cultural
models. Those models set the reality boundaries within which emotions are defined, formed, and
promoted (Bruner, 1986). Therefore, contextualizing emotions in these specific cultural models
builds on the recognition that emotional experiences and behaviors are better understood and
predicted at every level if we have knowledge of the cultural models in which they occur.

3. Differences in emotion practices

This section will address cultural differences in four aspects of emotions: antecedent events,
subjective feeling, appraisal, and expression/behavior. Differences in the emotion practices within
each of those components will be described as they seem to relate to the pertinent cultural models.
The relevance of cultural differences in emotion practices for cross-cultural assessment of
emotional disturbances will be discussed as well.

3.1. Differences in antecedent events

There are cultural differences in prevalent antecedent events. The differences in prevalent ante-
cedent events may underlie some of the differences in emotions. A particular type of emotion
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may be prevalent due to a high rate of conditions that are conducive for those emotions, and
similarly, other types of emotions may be rare because of the rare occurrence of their elicitors.

3.1.1. Differences in the social production of antecedent events

Living conditions vary because different cultural models promote and afford different kinds of
events (Cohen, 2001). Cultures tend to promote and create events that elicit culturally desirable
emotions, whereas they fail to promote or even suppress events that lead to less desirable
emotions. For example, Americans promote happiness a highly desirable emotion in the Amer-
ican cultural contextby creating and promoting many contexts in which happiness is likely to
occur (Mesquita & Markus, in press). They praise, compliment and encourage each other, give
awards and trophies for many varieties and levels of accomplishment, avoid being critical or
inattentive, and generally foster a positive and optimistic view of themselves (DAndrade, 1987).
In a similar vein, cultures that devalue anger, such as the Utku Inuits, the Chewong of aboriginal
Malaysia, the Tahitians, and the Japanese tend to reduce the in-group contexts in which anger is
likely to emerge (Briggs, 1970; Heelas, 1984; Levy, 1973; Mesquita et al., in preparation). In
those cultures, the acts of thwarting and frustrating in-group members are largely absent, thus
avoiding the experience of improper emotions.
Event ecologies also vary across cultures as an effect of cultural differences in personal goals
as afforded by the culture. Individualist cultures, such as the US, put emphasis on standing out
and becoming distinguished from others through self-sufficiency and personal accomplishment.
Collectivist cultures such as Japan underline meeting social obligations and responsibilities in
order to maintain interpersonal relationships and group harmony (Elliott, Chirkov, Kim, & Shel-
don, 2001; Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; Karasawa, 2001; Kitayama et al., 1997;
Markus, Kitayama, & Heiman, 1996). The events that are promoted and created by a culture vary
according to its prevalent cultural goals. Events that positively reflect on the self are found to be
more frequent in a US context, whereas events that keep the individual modest or self-critical are
found to be more frequent in a Japanese cultural context. For example, in one study both American
and Japanese respondents recognized situations that were generated by Americans as more self-
enhancingi.e. inducing positive changes in self-esteemand situations that were generated by
Japanese as more conducive to self-criticismi.e. inducing negative changes in self-esteem
(Kitayama et al., 1997). Thus the types of situations that were most prevalent, as perceived by
respondents in both cultures, were different across cultures. This different ecology of events poss-
ibly leads to different practices of emotions.

3.1.2. Differences in the significance of events

The ecology of antecedent events may also be culture-specific because certain events derive
their meaning from the specific cultural models, for example, those in which spiritual or religious
beliefs are central. Spiritual beliefs constitute the antecedents of emotion in the case of Surinamese
who attribute their misfortune and failure to black magic (Wooding, 1979), in the case of many
African cultures who attribute bad outcomes to evil spirits and discontented ancestors
(Anderson & Kanyana, 1996; Offiong, 1991), and in the case of Tahitians who interpret being
alone as an opportunity for spirits to bother a person, and thus as a situation of fear or uncanny
feelings (described in Levy, 1973). Thus, cultural models promote particular interpretations of
events which in turn affect the emotion elicitation.
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This point has also been made in the literature on honor cultures. Many events in these cultures
derive meaning from their relevance to honor, and are thus likely to induce emotions. Cultures
of honor define honor as respect of the sort that situates the individual socially and determines
his (or her) right to precedence. Honor in this sense is based on a persons (often a mans) strength
and power to enforce his will on others (Abu-Lughod, 1986; Cohen, 1996; Cohen, & Nisbett
1994, 1997; Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996; Peristiany, 1966). In cultures of honor,
the perception of honor violations or potential honor violations is abundant, inevitably eliciting
emotions in the categories of either shame or anger.
Similarly, values as endorsed at the cultural level predict the significance of certain events.
Hofstede (2001, p. 161) found, for example, that cultures differed in the value of uncertainty
avoidance, the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown
situations. Consequently, children in cultures that are high on uncertainty avoidance (e.g. Greece,
Portugal, Japan) tend to be more guided by a set of rules of what is right and wrong, or more
specifically clean and dirty, than children in cultures low on uncertainty avoidance (e.g. Hong
Kong, Sweden, Jamaica). Children in the high uncertainty avoidance cultures, therefore, conceive
of more actions as (potential) norm transgressions, and thus more readily feel anxious, guilty
and sinful.
Importantly, an understanding of the relevance of emotion-eliciting events in terms of the cul-
tural models renders the emotion practices more transparent (Mesquita et al., 1997). It is the
meaning of the events as derived from the cultural models that makes the subsequent feelings
and emotional acts comprehensible. For example, the prevalence of anger and angry responses
among the Surinamese in response to misfortune (Mesquita, 1993) becomes comprehensible when
considering that many Surinamese understand their misfortune as incurred by Black Magic
(Wooding, 1979). Also it is important to understand that insults are conceived of as honor
violations in the South of the US, because this interpretation explains why, in response to insults,
Southerners show more anger and aggressive responses than Northerners, but also why they are
likely to bear less resentment than Northerners after they have expressed their anger (the bill is
evened; strength is being exhibited) (Cohen, 1999). In order to understand the practice of
emotional responses, it is thus important to consider the cultural models that lend meaning to the
antecedent event.

3.1.3. Differences in focus

Cultural models may also affect which aspects of antecedent events are the focus of attention.
There are, for example, cultural differences in the relative focus on either negative or positive
outcomes that can be understood from different cultural models. Individualist cultural models
emphasize the approach of positive outcomes, whereas collectivist models focus on the avoidance
of bad outcomes (e.g Elliott et al., 2001; Lee, Aaker, & Gardner, 2000). These differences in
emphasis can be understood from different self goals. Individualist cultural models emphasize
strengthening good qualities and thus becoming autonomous and unique. Collectivist models, on
the other hand, emphasize the importance of living up to obligations and responsibilities, and the
main focus is thus on the prevention of bad outcomes (i.e. not living up to the standards).
These cultural differences in the salient aspects of events have implications for emotional prac-
tices. Within a North American context, Higgins, Shah, and Friedman (1997) found evidence that
a prevention focus fosters relaxation or relief when the goals are achieved, and anxiety when the
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goals are not reached. On the other hand, these authors found that a promotion focus affords
feelings of happiness when the goals are achieved, and feelings of sadness, when the goals are
not met. In a cross-cultural vignette study on success and failure, Lee et al. (2000) found that the
individualist American group, consistent with what should be hypothesized on the basis of their
cultural focus on promotion, reported a higher intensity of happiness/depressed emotions than
relief/anxiety emotions. Conversely, a collectivist Chinese group, consistent with their focus on
prevention, reported a higher intensity of relief/anxiety than happiness/depressed emotions. The
different emphases on promotion/approach or prevention/avoidance give rise to differences in the
salience of certain events, and thus to differences in the prevalent types of emotions.
3.1.4. Implications for cross-cultural assessment
Different cultural models may thus contribute to the ecology of antecedent events as it appears
to individuals in that culture. Events that afford the cultural models are promoted and created
(e.g. awards in the US), whereas events that interfere with them are suppressed and transformed
(e.g. thwarting in many cultures that focus on harmony). Cultural models also lend meaning to
a large array of events by relating them to central themes in the cultural models (for example,
honor). Finally, cultural models draw attention to particular aspects of events (for example, the
potential negative outcomes). The resulting differences in the ecology of events are likely to lead
to differences in emotion practices.
Through their effect on the occurrence of antecedent events, cultural models may render certain
emotions prevalent and others rare. Cultural models that stress the importance of social rules
produce many situations in which social expectations play a role, foster the interpretation of many
acts and events as relevant to meeting or not meeting social rules, and focus attention on the
possibility of falling short of expectations (a focus on the negative outcomes). All these culture-
specific practices of emotion antecedents contribute to anxiety. There is some suggestion that
cultural models stressing the importance of social rules facilitate excessive anxiety (Hofstede,
2001). Cultural models, through the way they shape the ecology of emotion antecedents, may
thus be predictive of certain emotional disturbances.
One may also formulate a hypothesis to the opposite, which would hold that cultural models
that emphasize social rules and obligations sanction high levels of anxiety. Thus, in cultures where
the models afford and value high modal levels of emotion, the threshold for judging anxiety levels
as disturbed, is higher. In fact, a higher level of anxiety may be functional by particular models,
because it keeps people in place, and makes them less likely to break rules or take personal risks
(cf. Hofstede, 2001). Living in fear may be a value in cultural contexts that emphasize the need
to fulfill social roles and to meet social expectations (e.g Lutz, 1987). Recognition of emotional
disturbance may, then, be relative to the modal or desirable levels of emotions as specified by
the cultural model, rather than being an absolute concept.
3.2. Differences in experience: valence
An important dimension of subjective experience is that of valence: pleasure and displeasure
(Feldman Barrett & Russell, 1998, 1999). All languages appear to have words to distinguish
between pleasure and displeasure (Wierzbicka, 1992), and valence is an organizing dimension of
many emotion lexicons (Russell, 1983). However, cultures appear to differ with regard to the
preferred state on that dimension in ways that can be understood from the cultural models.
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Independent cultural models, the American in particular, appear to foster a positive outlook on
life; being happy is one of the goals (Kitayama & Markus, 1999; Markus & Kitayama). An
individual is accountable for his/ her happiness (Hochschild, 1995) and is expected to pro-actively
maintain a positive view of the self (Heine et al., 1999). In contrast, East Asian cultural models
do not seem to favor the positive. If anything, a self-critical, self-corrective approach is promoted
as a way to keep the individual aligned with the group (Karasawa, 2001; Lewis, 1995). Generally,
however, the East Asian cultural model emphasizes receptivity, which means to be receptive to
both positive and negative features of the context.
Consistent with these cultural models, several studies have suggested that Americans tend to
appraise emotional situations as more pleasant than East Asians. In a large experience-sampling
study, we sampled the emotions of American, Japanese and Taiwanese students for the duration
of a week (Mesquita & Karasawa, 2002; Mesquita, Karasawa, & Chu, in preparation) it was
found that, on average, American students appraised the emotional situations in their lives as
positively different from neutral, whereas Japanese and Taiwanese students evaluated their lives
on average as neither positive nor negative.
Other studies with different methodologies have established convergent results. Kitayama,
Markus and Kurokawa (2000) asked Japanese and American respondents to rate how often they
experienced each of a list of emotions. Americans reported a much higher frequency of positive
than negative emotions, whereas the frequencies of positive and negative emotions did not differ
in the Japanese group. Thus, consistent with the cultural models, Americans experienced more
pleasure, whereas Japanese had emotions that were balanced with respect to valence.
Furthermore, in the same study (Kitayama et al., 2000), pleasant and unpleasant experiences
were negatively correlated in the US sample. In contrast, they were positively correlated in the
Japanese group. One interpretation of this finding is that the negative correlation in the American
group reflects the American objective to maximize positive and minimize negative feelings. The
positive correlation in the Japanese group can be interpreted to reflect that the de-emphasizing of
positive feelings in this group coincided with de-emphasizing negative feelings (Kitayama et al.,
2000). The latter finding may indicate that balance, rather than pleasantness, is sought after in
the Japanese group, and that some peoplethose who are able to regulate both positive and
negative emotionsare better at it than others (Kitayama & Markus, 1999).
There is other evidence indicating that pleasure is a more important source of motivation in
individualist than collectivist cultures. Suh, Diener, Oishi, and Triandis (1998) found that
Emotion (i.e. the positive affect minus the negative affect experienced in the last week) was
the best predictor of life satisfaction in countries with individualist cultural models. Emotion
predicted significantly less variance in life satisfaction for countries with collectivist cultural mod-
els. In these countries, the normative amount of life satisfaction (i.e. How satisfied would an ideal
person be?) accounted as much for life satisfaction as the emotions an individual experienced in
the past week. In other words, individualist cultural models set the criterion for a good life as
the frequency of pleasure minus the frequency of displeasure. Pleasure and displeasure seem to
be less central to the quality of life in other, more collectivist cultural contexts.
This finding was corroborated by recent experimental research comparing the task motivation
between North American and Japanese respondents (Heine et al., 2001; Oishi & Diener, 2001).
In these experiments, respondents received either failure or success feedback on a particular task
(e.g., a word association test). After this false feedback, all respondents were given the opportunity
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to spend more time on task for which they had received an evaluation. Though Japanese and
North American respondents both liked the success feedback better than the failure feedback,
Japanese were more motivated to work on a task after failure feedback, whereas North Americans
were more motivated for a task after success feedback. Thus, the general conclusion from this
research is that there are cultural differences in the extent to which pleasure is desirable and
sought after. In fact, when cultural models foster individuals to keep up with social responsibilities
and standards, individuals seem to choose these responsibilities over pleasure, and this process
may not be conscious at all.

3.2.1. Implications for cross-cultural assessment

It is clear that excesses and deficits in pleasure and displeasure have to be assessed in the
context of the desirable or modal levels of pleasure and displeasure. If the pursuit of pleasure is
not unequivocally positive in all cultures, then the lack of pleasure may not be equally problematic
in all cultures. Pleasure, for example, was shown to have limited value in predicting life satisfac-
tion and motivation in cultures with collectivist models. In that context, the concept of anhedonia
may be problematic. Lack of pleasure may not automatically imply lack of drive in cultures where
activities are instigated by role and obligation, rather than self-guided to begin with. That is, when
pleasure is not the main motivating force for activity, the lack of pleasure may not have the same
degree of maladaptive effects. We know of no literature addressing this issue cross-culturally.
Dissociations between pleasure and negative affect should also be assessed within the context
of cultural models. It appears from the scarce cross-cultural evidence so far that the modal or
desirable associations between pleasure and displeasure differ across cultures. For example, a
positive correlation between positive and negative emotions was found in Japan, whereas a nega-
tive correlation was found in the US (Kitayama et al., 2000). Associations or disassociations
between pleasure and displeasure may be only problematic to the extent that they are deviant
from the cultural models.

3.3. Differences in appraisal

A major aspect of current emotion theories is the notion that emotional experience is constituted
by the individuals appraisal of the eliciting events (Scherer, Schorr, & Johnston, 2001). Cultural
differences in the prevalence of certain appraisals can be understood from cultural models
(Mesquita & Ellsworth, 2001). Cultural models can be thought to facilitate and render desirable
certain appraisals of events, while making the occurrence of others less likely and less valued.
Cultural models thus foster culture-specific appraisal tendencies that are reflected in culturally
distinct patterns of emotional experience. There is ample evidence to support this point. The
current discussion will focus on differences in agency appraisals.
Agency is an attribution of responsibility for and control over the event. The attribution may
be made to the self, a particular other, fate, God, all circumstances together, or nobody in parti-
cular. Most of the cross-cultural research on appraisal has investigated attribution to a specific
agent: self or other (for an exception see Oettingen, Little, Lindenberger, & Baltes, 1994).
Cultural models appear to differ with respect to the role of personal agency. A key aspect
of Western cultural models, American in particular, is success through independent, personal
accomplishment (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Claiming responsibility and a personal sense of
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control are at the center of what it is to be a person in Western culture. In many other cultures,
agency is differently instantiated (e.g. by magic spells, ancestors, spirits), or is not valued as
much. An example of the latter is constituted by East Asian cultural models that stress fate,
the multi-determination of events and the interdependence of an individual and his/her (social)
environment (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Heine et al., 1999; Nisbett, Peng,
Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001). Personal agency has very limited applicability in these models. Con-
sistently, the East Asian cultural model emphasizes secondary control or adjustment to the situ-
ation, as situations are not considered subject to personal influence (Morling & Kitayama, 1999;
Weisz, Rothbaum, & Blackburn, 1984).
Cultural differences in agency appraisali.e. responsibility and controlhave been established
in a number of questionnaire studies. Participants in most of these studies were asked to remember
an instance of a given emotion, describe the situation, and then rate the situation on a number of
appraisal scales that were provided by the researchers (Mesquita & Ellsworth, 2001).
In an early study, Matsumoto, Kudoh, Scherer, and Wallbott (1988) comparing Japanese and
American students found that Japanese students judged the dimension of responsibility more often
to be not applicable to emotional situations than American students, possibly because of the idea
that situations are constituted by the combination of many factors together. Mauro, Sato, and
Tucker (1992), studying emotional appraisal in students from the US, the Peoples Republic of
China, Hong Kong and Japan, consistently, found the dimensions of control and responsibility to
be two of three dimensions for which substantial cross-cultural differences were observed. In this
study the differences in appraisal meant that similar emotions loaded in cross culturally different
ways on these dimensions. Similarly, agency emerged as one of the three appraisal dimensions
that differed across cultures in Scherers study among students from 37 different countries in six
geopolitical regions: northern and central Europe, Mediterranean countries, Anglo-American New
World countries, Latin American, Asian, and African countries (Scherer, 1997a,b). The tendency
to attribute agency thus appears to differ persistently across cultures.
Finally, the results from a recent experience-sampling study, monitoring the daily emotions of
50 Japanese and 50 American students throughout a week, provided evidence that the impact of
agency appraisals to subjective experience might in fact be different cross culturally. For American
students personal responsibility and control were good predictors of pleasantness, whereas for
Japanese students agency appraisals were not the primary predictors of pleasantness (Mesquita &
Karasawa, 2002). Overall, Americans thus not only have a higher tendency to appraise emotional
situations as under control, but they also experience more positive emotions as a result than
do Japanese.

3.3.1. Implications for cross-cultural assessment

There are cultural differences in the prevalent agency appraisals, with Westerners appraising
emotional events as more relevant to the dimensions of responsibility and control than, for
example, East Asians. As agency appraisals are central in some emotional experiences, such as
anger, differences in the prevalence of agency appraisals may be reflected in different patterns of
emotions. As mentioned before, anger is more prevalent in American than Japanese culture
(Kitayama et al., 2000). Differences in the tendency of personal agency attribution form another
potential explanation for these differences in anger prevalence, in addition to the explanation of
different event ecologies. It is important to note that the modal level of emotions in one culture
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(anger in the US for example) may seem to be excessive, and therefore emotionally disturbed,
from another cultures point of view.
There are also cultural differences in the weight attached to agency appraisals: personal control,
or the lack thereof, is a more important predictor of pleasure and displeasure in the West than it
is in East Asian groups. It is not clear, therefore, whether perceived lack of control, which in the
West has been found to contribute to excesses in sadness, fear, and worry (Berenbaum, Raghavan,
Le, Vernon, & Gomez 1999), is equally important in other cultures. In fact, there is some evidence
that not feeling in control may be the default state of mind in many cultures, where the world
tends to be perceived as one in which an individual has no control (Peng & Nisbett, 1999). It is
very possible that some of the detrimental effects of uncontrollability are specific to those cultures
whose models contain assumptions of individuals having control, and where the uncontrollable
is a violation of expectations and norms. The more general rule may be that situations that violate
cultural expectations are stressful, rather than that the uncontrollable itself is necessarily stressful.
A case could be made, therefore, that the nature of stressors varies along with the cultural models
of the right, the good, and the expected.

3.4. Differences in expression and behavior

Cultural differences in the frequencies of certain types of expressions and behaviors tend to
reflect differences in cultural models as well. Cultural models may be thought of as influencing
the relative salience of different behavioral options. Expressions and behaviors that are consistent
with cultural models tend to have a high rate of occurrence whereas responses that are contrary
to cultural models tend to be infrequent.
East Asian cultural models, for example, stress relational harmony and promote that individuals
take their proper place. These cultural models discourage individuals from occupying too much
space in the relationship, both figuratively and literally. Thus, expansive behavior, such as general
somatic activity, is a signal that the individual is taking more than his/her proper space. Consist-
ently, in a questionnaire study, Japanese respondents reported many fewer hand and arm gestures
and whole body activity than did Americans in situations of anger, sadness, fear, and happiness
(Scherer, Matsumoto, Wallbott, & Kudoh, 1988). Furthermore, Chinese American couples that
discussed a conflict area in their relationship displayed less general somatic activity than did
European American couples (Tsai & Levenson, 1997).
There is some indication that the expression of happiness, another expansive behavior, is also
rare in cultures that place an emphasis on harmony in relationships. Happiness expressions are
seen as potentially disruptive because they may painfully contrast with the emotional state of
others (M. Karasawa, personal communication, August, 1999), or because they may be seen to
indicate the plausibility of an individual challenging social obligations and evading responsibilities
(Lutz, 1987).
Cultural models of self and relationship thus imbue certain behaviors with valence. Aggressive
and happy expansiveness may universally emphasize individuality and self-other boundaries, but
this is consistent with some cultural modelsand thus goodand inconsistent with otherand
therefore bad. The culture-specific valence of certain behaviors may affect their rate of occurrence.
Again, this suggests that the standards by which to judge surpluses and deficits in expressive
behaviors will cross-culturally differ according to the cultural models.
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Evidence is accumulating that the most common types of emotional behaviors in a cultures are
those that promote the cultural models of relationships. In a large-scale interview study with
European American, Mexican, and Japanese respondents, the prevalent emotional responses to
three types of situations could be understood from the respective cultural models. Respondents,
both men and women, were selected both from community as well as college student samples
(Mesquita et al., in preparation). In the interviews, each respondent reported different emotional
situations from their own past, among which were situations of offense and humiliation.
Respondents were asked to report on their behavioral outputs, which included actual behavior as
well as behavioral urges. The behavioral outputs in each culture could be understood as instantia-
tions of the cultural models.
The most prevalently reported behavioral outputs in the American group consisted of blame,
aggression, and distancing oneself from the relationship. Blaming another person realizes that self-
esteem maintenance by discounting the possibility that the offense or humiliation was deserved.
Aggression serves individual gain, as it is an attempt to influence the offender into conforming
to the wishes of the respondent. Distancing oneself from the relationship with the other person,
and thus discontinuing exposure to a person that is potentially humiliating and offensive, benefits
the individual at the expense of the relationship. Thus, the majority of American respondents
reported behavioral outputs that served the model of self-esteem and separateness.
The most prevalent Mexican behaviors were blame, moving away, and distancing oneself.
Blame realized the goal of maintaining dignity, which was empirically indistinguishable from
realization of the American goal of maintaining self-esteem. Moving away and distancing oneself
were clearly consistent with another emphasis of the Mexican cultural model on simpata, which
stands for friendly and smooth behavior as well as avoidance of direct confrontation (Condon,
1985; Sanchez-Burks, Nisbett, & Ybarra, 2000; Triandis, Marn, Lisansky, & Betancourt, 1984).
The prevalent responses in both the American and the Mexican group thus focused on changing
the relationship with the other person who was held responsible for the offense or humiliation,
but they did so in partially different ways that promoted their respective cultural models: in the
American context by confronting the other person and trying to influence their behavior, in the
Mexican model by avoiding confrontation and escaping from the situation. The aggressive
responses frequently reported by the American group were infrequent in the Mexican context.
This is consistent with the Mexican cultural emphasis on avoidance of direct confrontation.
The Japanese cultural model emphasizes maintenance of relationships (Heine et al., 1999;
Lebra, 1992; Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The individuals focus should be on restoring internal
balance and contributing to the relationship (cf. Morling & Kitayama, 1999; Weisz et al., 1984).
The most prevalent Japanese behavior was blaming the self, a behavior that can be seen as
opposite to blaming the other, thus saving the relationship rather than the self. Consistently,
Japanese tried to justify the behavior of the other person, and tried to actively re-mediate the
situation. Japanese also sought to be closer to the person who offended or humiliated them.
Finally, in the situation of offense, the most prevalent response was to do nothing, and to de-
emphasize the importance of ones feelings. Internal balance is thus sought, rather than influence
on the other person or on the situation.
In sum, the interviews suggested that emotional behaviors in the contexts of these interpersonal
situations are instrumental in realizing the cultural models of self and relationship. However, one
problem with the interview was that the behavioral outputs yielded were in response to self-
788 B. Mesquita, R. Walker / Behaviour Research and Therapy 41 (2003) 777793

reported antecedent events. To rule out that the different behavioral styles could be attributed to
differences in the reported events, a follow-up study was conducted that used standardized vig-
nettes as starting points of comparison. The study was conducted among comparable groups of
European American and Japanese college students. The study replicated the findings of the open
interviews, in that, regardless of the origin of the vignettes, American respondents reported more
American behavioral outputs (e.g. Yelling at the other person) and Japanese more Japanese
behavioral outputs (e.g. Doing nothing). There were no differences in the types of emotions
reported (Idzelis, Mesquita, Karasawa, & Hayashi, 2002). This study, using a more standardized
approach, thus confirmed the idea that cultural models help to predict cultural differences with
regard to the behavioral outputs in emotional situations.
Finally, even when the frequency of emotional behaviors does not seem to vary across cultures,
the meaning ofuniversalemotional behaviors may be interdependent with the cultural models.
For example, the lack of initiative that can be found in sad people (depressed patients in particular)
across the world has different meaning in collectivist and individualist cultures (Tanaka-Mats-
umi & Draguns, 1997). In collectivist cultures, the social networks of individuals tend to make
decisions for them anyway, and passivity on the part of the individual does not interfere in decisive
ways with their functioning. In individualist cultures, on the other hand, personal agency is
required to function well. Depressed patients in individualist cultures are often unable to overcome
the stress of personal decisions, and the same emotional passivity is thus more likely to affect
their the individuals social status and their well-being as a person. Thus, cultural modelsbeliefs
as well as practicesconstitute the meaning of universal behaviors in the particular social context.

3.4.1. Implications for cross-cultural assessment

The prevalence of certain expressions and behaviors appears to be affected by their meaning
to the cultural models. Culturally prevalent expressive and instrumental behaviors tend to fit the
specific cultural model, and the conspicuous absence of certain expressions and behaviors can be
understood from their conflict with the focal cultural models. Again, this suggests that the modal
rates of occurrence of certain expressive and instrumental behaviors will vary across cultures.
Therefore, the standards by which to judge surpluses and deficits in expressive and instrumental
behaviors will cross-culturally differ according to the cultural models. What seems a normal level
of aggression in one culture may be seen as either excessive or deficient in another. Assessments
of emotional disorders in expression across cultures should thus be made with extreme caution.
Expressions and behaviors ultimately serve the fit of an individual in his/her cultural environ-
ment. Cultural models help to define what counts as fit. This means that the healthy emotional
responses may vary as a function of cultural models of self and relationship. Depending on the
cultural models, healthy (i.e. functional) expressive and instrumental behaviors may be those that
promote separation and autonomy, or alternatively, those that realize relatedness and belong-
ingness. The cultural models also constitute what counts as dysfunctional. The cultural
(dys)functionality of expression and behavior should thus be considered in the assessment of
emotional disorders of expression and behavior.
B. Mesquita, R. Walker / Behaviour Research and Therapy 41 (2003) 777793 789

4. Discussion

Emotional disturbances have been defined as excesses, deficits, and lacks of coherence in
emotions. In order to judge an excess or deficit in emotion, one needs to be aware of the normal
amount of emotion. Similarly, an observed lack of coherence among emotional components is
likely to signify a digression from the modal or normative coherence. Thus, cross-cultural assess-
ment of emotional disturbances requires the consideration of standardi.e. modal and norma-
tiveemotion practices.
There is evidence that these modal and normative emotion practices vary across cultures in
ways that can be understood and predicted from cultural models of the good. Emotional outputs
that are functional to the cultural models appear to be promoted, whereas emotional phenomena
that are dysfunctional appear to be inhibited. The modal, and normative emotional phenomena
are thus consistent with the cultural models of what is good.
There is evidence for cultural differences in antecedent events, and in the interpretations of
antecedent events consistent with cultural models. For example, cultural models that emphasize
social obligations afford interpretations of events in terms of potential negative outcomes. These
interpretations may be determining of the prevalence of consequent emotions. We have suggested
that the focus on social obligationsand thus on potential negative outcomesmay increase the
occurrence of anxiety. Cultures that center on social obligations may thus have higher default
levels of anxiety, and it is important to consider those levels when assessing excesses in anxiety.
There is also evidence for cultural differences in subjective feelings. Cultural models seem to
differ with respect to the emphasis they put on pleasure, and these differences in emphasis are
reflected in the reported average levels of pleasure, the connection between reported pleasure and
displeasure, and the drive that pleasure provides. Thus, when cultural models focus on social
obligations, rather than the pursuit of pleasure, the level of reported pleasure is found to be lower,
it is found to be uncorrelated with the level of displeasure, and it is not found to be as important
for the motivation of behavior.
Cultural differences in the relevance and level of agency appraisals can also be attributed to
different cultural models. Individuals more readily appraise antecedent events as relevant to
agency as well as find agency more pleasant when their cultural models place an emphasis on
the personal agency of individuals.
Finally, there is evidence that cultural differences in expressive and instrumental behaviors are
a function of the prevailing cultural models of the good. Behaviors that realize the cultural models
are most prevalent, whereas behaviors that obstruct the cultural models are rare. For example,
doing nothing in response to an offense is the functional and most prevalent behavior in Japan,
because it helps to realize the central cultural model of preserving harmony in relationships.
In sum, the modal and normative cultural practices of emotion antecedents, subjective feeling,
appraisal, and expressive and instrumental behaviors vary along with the cultural models. Thus,
the modal emotion practices appear to be the ones that are functional in light of the cultural
models of what is good, especially in the domain of self and relationships. Emotional disturbances
can then be defined as phenomena that deviate from the modal and normative cultural practices.
In this line of reasoning, cultural models help to understand and predict the modal emotional
practices, by which emotional disturbances are judged.
However, cultural models may also help to understand emotional disturbances in a more direct
790 B. Mesquita, R. Walker / Behaviour Research and Therapy 41 (2003) 777793

way. Just as the normal emotional lives of people in a given culture can be understood and
predicted from cultural models of the good, so may emotional disturbances. Emotional disturb-
ances, then, would be those emotional outputs that interfere with the desirable cultural outcomes,
and that are likely to be felt as disturbances, if not by the individual him or herself, by his or
her social environment. Thus, for example, sadness would be particularly salient when the cultural
model promotes happiness (as is the case in the US). A cultural approach to emotionsemotional
disturbances includedthus enables an assessment of emotional functioning that is sensitive to
the perspective of an individuals own culture.


We are thankful to Will Fleeson and Ashleigh Haire for their thoughtful comments on earlier
versions of this paper.


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