Are Human Emotions Universal?

By Liah Greenfeld

It is widely believed that human emotions, from love to ambition to pride or desire for freedom, for instance, are hardwired into our brain and that, therefore, both their range and their nature are universal, shared by humanity as a whole. This belief is wrong and itself reflects the fundamental universalism of modern Western, particularly American, thought and its tendency to consider all human consciousness and behavior as a function of biology. Both comparative zoology and comparative history  show that, above the limited range of emotions we share, as animals, with other animal species, what moves human beings and makes them suffer in one culture or society may be dramatically different from the emotions shaping the living experiences in another one.

Emotions, or feelings, as the name suggests, are experienced through physical sensations. In this they differ from other mental experiences, usually called “cognitive.” The part of sensations in an emotion allows us to place it into one of three categories: primary emotions, secondary emotions, and tertiary emotions. Primary emotions are experienced through specific sensations and represent the direct reaction of the organism to the stimuli of its physical environment. They include such experiences as pain and pleasure, fear, positive and negative excitement (joy and anxiety), hunger and satiation, and their biological function is to increase the individual organism’s survival. It is clear that these primary emotions are common to humans and other animals.

We also share with other animals more complex, secondary emotions which lack a physical expression specific to them and are expressed through various combinations of physical sensations. These are emotions such as affection, which we see plainly in the species of birds (penguins, swans) and mammals (wolves) which mate for life and in the relations between mothers and their young among numerous species of mammals. Physically, affection is, most probably, expressed through sensations of pleasure and joyful excitement. Animals that are capable of affection are also capable of sorrow, which must express itself through similar neurobiological mechanisms as pain. This is what they feel when they lose, as often happens in the animal kingdom (think how many mothers lose their babies and vice versa) the object of their affection. One could add to these the feelings of sympathy and pity, on the one hand, and anger–outraged authority, which have been regularly observed in great apes and monkeys, as well as in social mammals such as wolves and lions. Secondary emotions also perform an obvious biological function: they strengthen the social order within the species and thus ensure the survival of the species. For this reason, like sensations, or primary emotions, which ensure the adaptation and survival of the individual organism, they indeed must be hardwired into the brain and produced genetically.

But this is not so with the great majority of our emotions, twice removed, so to speak, from their physical expression, which we don’t share with other animals. These tertiary emotions include common feelings, such as love, ambition, pride, self-respect, shame, guilt, inspiration, enthusiasm, sadness, awe, admiration, humility and humiliation, sense of justice and injustice, envy, malice, resentment, cruelty, hatred, and so on and so forth. It is not that other animals don’t have the capacity for these complex emotions: first, capacities can only be observed in realization, and therefore we do not know what capacities other animals have or don’t have; second, anyone who has lived with a dog knows that dogs–our pets–are capable of many of these feelings, for sure. We do not share tertiary emotions with other (wild) animals, even such closely related to our biological species as chimpanzees, precisely because they don’t have a biological function; they are not needed for physical survival, and so they are not hardwired into our bodies. They are produced culturally, and not genetically. The brain supports but does not provide for them. Saying that the great majority of human emotions are produced culturally implies that each one of them is a product of a specific culture, that is, an historical product. This means that the emotional experiences of people in different cultures are not the same and may even be very different. But emotional experience is a major part of our mental life, our mind. This, therefore, means that mental life associated with different cultures is likely to be different, i.e., that, while there is a specific brain structure that represents every human brain, there is no one human mind that can serve as the model of all minds. (This, among other things, further leads us to conclude that psychology must be cultural psychology.)

In the next post, I shall begin focusing on specific emotions, such as love, ambition, happiness, etc., which are central to modern existential experience.

[Originally published in The Modern Mind on Psychology Today]

4 thoughts on “Are Human Emotions Universal?

  1. Pingback: Modern Emotions: Aspiration and Ambition | Liah Greenfeld

  2. Pingback: Modern Emotions and Perennial Drives: Love and Sex | Liah Greenfeld

  3. Pingback: Can Sexless Love Be Fulfilling? | Liah Greenfeld

  4. Pingback: Love, Ambition, Happiness, Pets and Nationalism | Liah Greenfeld

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s