Pum Kommattam: "Feeling the Other: Emotion Interpretation in Intercultural Settings"

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Pum Kommattam: "Feeling the Other: Emotion Interpretation in Intercultural Settings"

On June 6, 2017 Pum Kommattam successfully defended the PhD thesis entitled "Feeling the Other: Emotion Interpretation in Intercultural Settings" at Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Prof. Dr. A. H. Fischer

Dr. Kai J. Jonas


As earlier research suggests, individuals are worse at reading facial expressions of emotions in outgroup members than in ingroup members. This finding was primarily established by showing participants different emotional expressions and asking them to make a choice based on different emotional labels. Here, participants make more mistakes if they see emotional expressions of ethnic outgroup members compared to ethnic ingroup members, which was the starting point of this dissertation. The goal of the current research was to study misinterpretations of emotional expressions across groups further. First, we wanted to find out whether people also show biases in perceived intensity of emotions in ethnic ingroup and outgroup members. This intensity bias is subtle and could say something about how we perceive the emotional lives of members of other ethnic groups. Furthermore, we studied misinterpretation of emotions that communicate opposing social intentions. This could say something about different social signals that are perceived in interethnic communication.
In chapter two, we report findings of 16 studies in which we tested whether people perceive less intense emotions in members of other groups compared to members of their own groups based on a meta-analysis over 13 studies and 3 cross cultural studies (Ntotal = 3517).We found evidence for the idea that people perceive outgroup members to feel less intense emotions than ingroup members. This was particularly the case if the context did not provide additional information on how a person may feel and when using low intensity expressions that leave room for biases. Furthermore the intensity bias was more likely to occur for expressions that share similar physical features, such as fear and surprise, and for emotions that are considered to be secondary, such as embarrassment and pride, compared to more prototypical expressions such as anger. Intensity difference were mostly found in contexts where white European or European-American perceivers judged emotional expressions of Arabs and less so vice versa, or in other intergroup contexts, such as Dutch people judging Polish people. One of the explanations for this pattern is that intensity differences across groups are related to decreased empathy towards outgroup members since reduced empathy towards outgroup members may be rooted in perceptions of less intense emotions in others. Another explanation that is supported by our data is that Europeans in particular tend to dehumanize non-Europeans, meaning that they see others as less human and more animal like and primitive. This could result in Europeans attributing less complex emotions to non-Europeans. Specifically, European participants perceived less intense pride, embarrassment, surprise and fear in Arabs.
In chapter three we report how expressions of embarrassment can be perceived as disinterest in intergroup contexts, since both expressions share similar physical feature. This line of research shows that people perceived posed expressions of embarrassment as such in ingroup members, but perceived the same expression as disinterest in outgroup members (Ntotal = 1607). The affiliative function of embarrassment as restoring social relationships can thus have the opposite social function in intergroup contexts based on misinterpretations of the perceiver.
Overall, the current research shows that particularly low intensity expressions or ambiguous emotions can be misinterpreted in intergroup contexts. We discussed these findings in relation to different explanations that have slightly different foci. Perceiving less intense emotions in outgroup members can be the result of the empathy gap, but also of more general biases, such as dehumanization. We could not replicate earlier findings of people attributing more intense emotions in outgroup members (e.g., more anger in black people). More research on intergroup emotion interpretation is needed in order to facilitate smooth interactions between members of different groups.

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KLI Conference 2016

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