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In a globalized world, in spite of cultural differences, we share, at least at the symbolic level (language level), lots of things. Considering pictures that display emotions (affect), such as those offered by the International Affective Picture System, could we speak of their 'international' character without affecting the specific and local cultural influence that might influence us in rating them?

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From Wikipedia: "These pictures are representative of daily experiences such as household furniture ..." I'm pretty sure that household furniture is pretty varied worldwide and has no universal characteristics. So I don't understand how these images can be not culturally biased. –  what Jul 8 '13 at 18:18
Well, there is more to IAPS than furniture. There are over 1000 pictures depicting varied categories, household furniture being one of them. –  Dana Sugu Jul 9 '13 at 4:33
Well, sure, but how much you see around yourself (and could be photographed or drawn) is not specific to your culture? There are cultures that view beards as necessary to a man being seen as male, so you would need all males in the images to have beards -- or not, because in other countries (east Asia) beards are so uncommon as to make anyone having a beard an outsider. I really cannot imagine how images of everyday anything can have the same meaning and elicit the same emotions universally, especially not thousands of them. –  what Jul 9 '13 at 7:48
Also, language is not universal. A famous example are color terms: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Affects might be universal, but everything else is culture specific, from the meaning of clothing (a burka is a sign of repression in Western countries, while a mini skirt is not a symbol of female liberation in Saudi Arabia) to social rituals (in Russia you have to decline an offer of food and will be forced until you eat; in Germany your refusal would be taken at face value and a Russian would go hungry and feel slighted). etc. etc. etc. –  what Jul 9 '13 at 7:53
Could someone please edit the question to make it more clear? I don't understand what it means to "speak of the intentional character of something without affecting the specific and local cultural influence that might influence us in rating it". Maybe not compressing the intended meaning so much and using a few more sentences and an example might help. –  what Jul 11 '13 at 7:46

2 Answers 2

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Long story short: at least in facial affect perception/expression, there is not a definitive answer to this. The field is only just beginning to get a handle on the fact that what have been long thought of as "universal" expressions of emotion don't seem to be, so there is considerably less work on how exactly culture affects these expressions. However, current consensus is that between-group affective judgments have lower agreement rates than within-group affective judgments.

There is longstanding work from Paul Ekman suggesting that perception of six basic emotions in faces is universal (he wrote an argument for this point of view here and, more recently, here). This was based on quite a lot of work showing that participants agreed at very high rates on the emotion displayed in a set of pictures of emotionally expressive faces. However, there are methodological weaknesses in this work (there is fulltext of an excellent review on it available here). Basically, these can be summed up as a preference for forced-choice (making participants choose from a limited list of answers about the emotion on display), within-subject designs, and stimuli from Ekman's original set; when different experimental design choices are made, the agreement largely disappears.

This opens the field for suggestions that most or all affective expression is in fact culturally influenced; a more recent study here found less agreement between groups than within groups, and more agreement between groups that had more exposure to eachother than groups that had less exposure to eachother. This paper is a highly detailed answer to your question, at least as currently understood.


1) Universals and cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. Ekman, Paul. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Vol 19, 1971, 207-283.

2) An argument for basic emotions. Ekman , Paul. Cognition & Emotion : Vol. 6, Iss. 3-4, 1992.

3) Is There Universal Recognition of Emotion From Facial Expression? A Review of the Cross-Cultural Studies. Psychological Bulletin 1994, Vol. 115, No. 1, 102-141.

4) On the universality and cultural specificity of emotion recognition: A meta-analysis. Elfenbein, Hillary Anger; Ambady, Nalini. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 128(2), Mar 2002, 203-235.

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Thank you for your answer. I've reached the conclusion that 'between-group affective judgments have lower agreement rates than within-group affective judgments' by running an online experiment based on visual stimuli between 6 different cultural groups. I found interesting discussions on possible explanations of these differences in "Categorical vs Dimensional Models of Affect Panksepp and Russell" edited by Zachar P. and Ellis R.D. –  Dana Sugu Jul 17 '13 at 3:46
I myself tend to be skeptical of overbearing claims of universalism and of Paul Ekman's theories but I don't think that “when different experimental design choices are made, the agreement largely disappears” is a fair summary of the literature. In any case, this is all a rather different question than how we perceive everyday scenes/IAPS pictures. –  Gala Jul 18 '13 at 9:31

If "we" - as global citizens - speak of their international quality it does not affect how they affect our ratings of them. Perhaps one could study responses to "International APS" versus "National APS" while presenting the IAPS in both conditions post "priming". This would determine differences in ratings, but the IAPS is first and foremost designed for emotion elicitation, that is: responses and not ratings. Those responses are species-dependent, but universal among humans.

UPDATE: In psychology "rating" and "response" have specific meanings. A response is a reaction to a stimulus, an event in the environment. For example, a stop sign makes a person stop their car. The sign is the stimulus and braking is the response. In psychological testing of humans, a field called psychometry, ratings are gathered through questionnaires. For example: "On a scale from 1 to 7, are you experiencing fear when seeing this image?". Ratings require evaluations. As such, ratings require deliberate tought. In contrast, responses can be automatic. For example, a person seeing the barrel of a gun pointed at him in an image might respond with sudden fear: the eyes open wide. In some situations we have a choice to respond with a smile if we appraise that a person should be greeted with a smile. However, sometimes we meet a friend and smile back immediately without any deliberate thought. Responses are tightly linked to the stimulus and are sometimes automatic, while ratings require deliberate judgement, sometimes through verbalization.

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Thank you, but I wonder, how you make the difference between responses and ratings, when the responses are the ratings? What do I miss here? –  Dana Sugu Jul 17 '13 at 3:52
@DanaSugu, please see my updated reply above. Ratings require a choice between responses, but there are more types of responses than ratings, but see above - I have added a distinction to the answer. I hope this helps. –  noumenal Jul 17 '13 at 16:43
Thank you for the update. I understand the difference between the responses and the ratings. In this case, the only response was the ratings as no (neuro)physiological measurement was involved. As Jaak Panksepp (Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions) puts it, in case of the ratings we look at the tertiary level, while responses take place at the primary and secondary levels. (emr.sagepub.com/content/3/4/387.full.pdf) –  Dana Sugu Jul 18 '13 at 5:34
Picture selection/norms for the IAPS are entirely based on ratings (specifically SAM ratings by groups of students). How is that “designed for responses and not ratings”? Also, emotional responses can only be considered universal in a very vague sense (as in “we can in principle experience the same emotions” but certainly not “we all experience the same emotion in the same situation”). –  Gala Jul 18 '13 at 9:34
I am not speaking of arousal of valence as “affordances” or in fact defending any perspective, I am just stating some basic facts about the IAPS: It is based on the idea that selected pictures can elicit broadly similar responses in most people and these responses were originally assessed with SAM ratings. Or if you want to make a distinction between perceived and experienced emotion, then the IAPS is about perceived emotion, not other affective responses (physiological or otherwise). Incidentally, there is nothing uncommon about the notion of a stimulus having a valence. –  Gala Jul 19 '13 at 10:12

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