Reverting to cultural type

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Who I Am Depends on How I Feel: The Role of Affect in the Expression of Culture:

We present a novel role of affect in the expression of culture. Four experiments tested whether individuals’ affective states moderate the expression of culturally normative cognitions and behaviors. We consistently found that value expressions, self-construals, and behaviors were less consistent with cultural norms when individuals were experiencing positive rather than negative affect. Positive affect allowed individuals to explore novel thoughts and behaviors that departed from cultural constraints, whereas negative affect bound people to cultural norms. As a result, when Westerners experienced positive rather than negative affect, they valued self-expression less, showed a greater preference for objects that reflected conformity, viewed the self in more interdependent terms, and sat closer to other people. East Asians showed the reverse pattern for each of these measures, valuing and expressing individuality and independence more when experiencing positive than when experiencing negative affect. The results suggest that affect serves an important functional purpose of attuning individuals more or less closely to their cultural heritage.

More in ScienceDaily:

… And elevated mood even shaped behavior, allowing volunteers to act “out of character.” These findings suggest that people in an upbeat mood are more exploratory and daring in attitude — and therefore more apt to break from cultural stereotype. That is, Asians act more independently than usual, and Europeans are more cooperative. Feeling bad did the opposite: It reinforced traditional cultural stereotypes and constrained both Western and Eastern thinking about the world.

I think these data are interesting in light of the sort of argument presented in works such as The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. The standard model here is that cultural openness correlates with economic growth, while stagnation results in retrenchment.

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  1. Just reading the beginning of this Ashton-James article there’s one thing that doesn’t gel. They say that “negative affect produces and enhanced propensity for familiar or normative actions”. 
    This prediction when extended to Western samples (ignoring the Eastern ones for now) would suggest that the Big Five personality traits neuroticism should be positively correlated with conscientiousness, and that neuroticism and openness to experience should be negatively correlated. (Higher conscientiousness is know to be associated with conformity, and lower openness to experience with conservative social attitudes). 
    Personality psychologists would say that these factors should be largely independent (that’s the basis of the Big Five). I wonder if these two positions could be reconciled. A longitudinal study would have to be to see whether early neuroticism really does lead to higher conscientiousness or lower openness to experience. 
    Actually, if you wanted to go all the way with this connection, you could substitute in extraversion for “positive emotion” and say there should be a negative correlation between extraversion and conscientiousness, and a positive one between extraversion and openness to experience, over the lifespan. Maybe the problem is that personality psychologists are talking about stable traits, whereas Ashton-James and colleagues are talking about short-term feelings and behaviors? I don’t know if traits can influence eachother over time like feeling and behaviors can…

  2. I’m unsure about how to parse this, but I reckon the authors are at least as confused as I am. First they claim that “positive affect allowed individuals to explore novel thoughts and behaviors that departed from cultural constraints”, but then they claim that Westerners who were feelin’ fine “valued self-expression less” and “showed a greater preference for objects that reflected conformity”. So . . . positive affect makes people less conformist by making them more conformist? Uh, say what? Is there a logician in the house? Anybody? Beuller?

  3. (And yes, I know what they’re trying to show, it just doesn’t make sense conceptually.)

  4. “Positive affect makes people less conformist by making them more conformist?”. Haha Matt that was classic. The logic certainly made me make a double-take as well.  
    Also, I kind of doubt that Westerners always value independence and non-conformity over conformity. Certainly they do more than most Asian cultures, but it’s a matter of degree. And we shouldn’t forget that some religious populations in the West are very conformist indeed. I think what trips up these authors is that they make it (culture) an all-or-nothing issue, when things are really more complicated. In my opinion they take a naive and stereotypical view of West vs. East.