Which Human Experiences Are Universal?

By Emma Young

As everyone knows, American undergrads are not representative of all humanity — and the perils of drawing conclusions about people in general from WEIRD studies have been well-publicised. To really understand which human experiences are universal, and which are a product of our individual cultures, we need big, well-conducted studies of people from many different cultures. Fortunately, there are studies like this. Here are some of their most fascinating insights…

Personal space

How big is your “personal space”? As a Brit, I’d expect mine to be larger than that of the average Italian’s, say. That’s because I know there are studies finding that people living in cultures that favour physical contact tend to have smaller “personal bubbles”. However, until recently, decent cross-cultural analyses of this concept had been lacking. 

That changed with a 2017 paper on “Preferred interpersonal distances” in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology from authors representing a total of 59 institutions, based everywhere from Beijing to Uruguay to Iran. In total, the team, led by Agnieszka Sorokowska, collected data on almost 9000 participants from 42 countries. They looked at preferences for “social distance” (physical distance when interacting with a stranger), “personal distance” (when with an acquaintance), and “intimate distance” (when interacting with a family member, for example). 

There were positive correlations between all three measures, but especially between the first two: people who preferred to stand closer to a stranger also tended to like being closer to an acquaintance. And when it came to country-by-country variations, the team found some big differences. People in Argentina had the smallest bubbles: they were happy for acquaintances to get within about 60 cm, and allowed close friends and family about another 15 cm nearer. England and the US fell about a third of the way up the acceptable distance chart — people in England preferred acquaintances to stay about 20 cm further away than Argentinians did, for example. The list was topped, though, by Romania, Hungary and Saudi Arabia. The average Hungarian’s preferred personal distance was almost twice that of the average Argentinian’s.

Exactly what might drive these country differences isn’t clear. But the team did note that, on the whole, women, older people and residents of colder countries preferred to keep strangers further at bay. Right now, however, Covid-19 means that of course we’re all used to more personal space than normal. But fear of the virus, along with long, stressful periods in lockdown, have led to a doubling in the personal distances perceived as comfortable among people in Lombardy, the region of Italy most affected by the virus, according to Tina Iachini at the University of Campania. “Social distance is like an invisible buffer around us that we always carry,” she’s been quoted as saying. “It is our shield of safety and that is why we are so sensitive to the safety value of this space.”

Emotion terms  

What does “anger” or “happiness” mean to you? And do these, and other emotion labels, mean essentially the same thing to an English-speaker as their nearest translations do to people who speak other languages? 

Earlier this year, a team led by Joshua Conrad Jackson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill published a paper in Science that looked for variations in the meaning of 24 emotional concepts across 2474 languages. The team examined the pattern of “colexification” in the different languages: that is, the way that single words are used to describe multiple concepts. For instance, in Persian, ænduh means both grief and regret, while in the Dargwa dialect, spoken in Dagestan in Russia, dard means grief and anxiety. So speakers of the two languages might have slightly different understandings of what “grief” is.

The team found important variations between language families. For example, in some languages, “anger” was related to “envy”, whereas in others it was linked more with “hate” or “proud”. In some Austronesian languages, “pity” and “love” were associated, whereas in others, they were not. (In general, though, there was agreement about which emotions are “positive” and which are “negative”.) The work suggests that there are indeed shades of culturally-influenced emotional experience. 

Sensory perceptions

The octave system is not only intrinsic to Western music, it’s also mathematically-based: move up an octave, and a given note doubles in frequency. Perhaps, then, Western music has come to use this system because it relates to the way that sound waves physically stimulate the cochlea in our inner ear — in other words, there’s something biologically fundamental, and universal, about the way we perceive pitch…


Which Human Experiences Are Universal?

F. Kaskais Web Guru

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