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Which human experiences are universal?

To really understand which human experiences are universal well-conducted studies of people from many different cultures.

15 September 2020

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. 

The problem with this suggestion is that, until recently, researchers hadn't tested the musical perceptions of people who had not been exposed to Western music. In 2019, that changed. In a paper in Current Biology, a team led by Nori Jacoby at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics revealed that a remote group of people living in the Bolivian rainforest don't process pitch in the same way as Americans. Unlike those of us used to listening to Western music, these people don't perceive similarities between two notes occurring an octave apart. 

This work adds to other research, notably in vision and smell, revealing that, while of course we humans all possess the same hardware, culture influences our sensory perceptions. 

Mate preferences

Back in 1989, the American psychologist David Buss published an influential paper concluding that there are some clear gender differences in mate preferences. Based on a study of data from more than 10,000 participants from 37 different cultures, he and his team suggested that women tend to be more interested in "good financial prospects" than men, and that men, more than women, consider "good looks" to be important in a mate. Cue a heated debate, and all kinds of follow-up studies. The big question was this: if these differences indeed exist, are they driven by biology, or by culture — and specifically by gender inequality? In cultures with markedly greater gender equality, might these differences disappear? 

In 2020, against a backdrop of old data and conflicting methods and conclusions, a huge international team, led by Kathryn Walter at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a large-scale replication study on more than 14,000 participants across 45 countries. Across groups, men were more interested in physical attractiveness than women, who in turn preferred older mates with good financial prospects. In countries with greater gender equality, couples tended to be more closely matched in age, but beyond this, levels of gender equality did not have an impact. The researchers concluded: "Support for universal sex differences in preferences remains robust."

Human values 

Do we all fundamentally value the same things? And do these values vary at all with age — or between genders? 

These are more than theoretically important questions. As the team behind a recent paper in Frontiers in Psychology led by Paul Hanel (Cardiff University) note, immigration is triggering some conflicts over perceptions of value. For example, a 2016 poll reported that three quarters of people living in Ontario, Canada, felt that Muslim immigrants have fundamentally different values to their own

However, other surveys have found that people around the world agree on values. In one study by Shalom Schwartz and Anat Bardi, people from 50 different countries tended to agree that benevolence, universalism and self-direction are highly important; tradition and power were valued least. 

So what can explain these discrepancies? Hanel and his colleagues recently studied people living in three different cultures: Brazil, India and the UK. They concluded that people in different nations can differ in the behaviours associated with certain values, while still holding similar ideas about the meaning and importance of those values. 

In 2020, a separate team led by Roosevelt Vilar looked at age and gender differences in values among more than 20,000 people living across 20 countries with "substantial" cultural variability. They found slight differences between men and women through most life stages. In general, women were more focused on social and 'central' goals (helping others, for example) whereas men were more focused on personal goals (excitement and promotion). Older people, too, valued social and central goals more than younger people, who were more enamoured of personal goals. 

However, the team reports, culture had virtually no impact on the results. This, they argue, "supports the lifespan developmental psychological idea that values reflect a universal pattern of human agency in facing challenges over the life span".

Broadly, then, this study, at least, argues that we are all driven to have fundamentally the same values — and the same slightly diverging values, according to age and gender — no matter where we live in the world.

While all these studies help us to understand which aspects of the human experience are universal, they don't actually fix the WEIRD problem, of course. What we really need are for researchers to include non-WEIRD participants in studies as standard. But while this should make results more generalisable, clearly there could also be situations in which there are meaningful differences in results between cultures — and these should be appreciated, too.

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest