Open to Culture: Emotions in Development



Vasu-ReddyVasudevi Reddy, Centre for Situated Action and Communication, University of Portsmouth 

Emotions are born in engagement. Whether with a hostile or captivating environment, an attentive or harsh caregiver, a momentary flicker of interest or disgust or a long-term affliction of desire or loss, it is our connection or involvement with the world that gives rise to, and sustains, emotions. This dependence upon engagement opens emotional doors to cultural variation, because what there is to engage with varies cross-culturally, as does how emotions are enhanced, supported, constrained or blocked by people or situations.

Catherine Lutz, in saying that emotional experience is not pre-cultural but pre-eminently cultural (Lutz, 1988, p. 5), situated emotional meaning squarely in everyday interactions and routines. And culture, one could argue further, is pre-eminently developmental. But how does the social and culturally dependent nature of emotions manifest itself in development?

Infants are drawn into engaging with others’ facial emotional expressions very early in life. By 3 months of age infants discriminate others’ happy, sad and angry expressions, matching them on their own faces (Haviland & Lelwica, 1987). By (at least) 11 months of age cross-cultural differences have been found between Chinese, Japanese and American babies in expressiveness and in the latency and durations of expressions: in response to restraint, Chinese babies cry later, show fewer Duchenne smiles and are less expressive (Camras et al, 1998).

These differences originate in cultural styles of expressiveness and interaction, with differences, for instance between American Chinese and Mainland Chinese infants (Camras et al, 2006). That the differences are pre-verbal and not just due to cultural imposition of display rules can be seen from studies which show similarities in subtle expressiveness within dyads – including particular expression types and preferences for brow or mouth regions in expression – with dyadic correlations increasing from 3 months to 6 months of age (Malataesta & Haviland, 1982).

But it is not just others’ facial expressions of emotion that very young infants recognise and adapt to: it is also emotional rhythms.  Daniel Stern suggests that all actions and expressions contain temporal rhythms which convey a little studied dimension of emotionality – ‘vitality affects’ or ‘vitality contours’ understood as dynamic changes in intensity and pattern within the temporal course of an action or expression (Stern, 1985, 2000). Anyone who has worked with musical tempo or with coordinated rhythms recognises how hard it is to follow one’s own rhythm and ignore others’. Such temporal dynamics are pervasive features of all actions, not just of the expression of the categorical affects such as happiness, sadness, anger, etc., and they can be powerful enough to affect interpersonal synchrony and even cardiac rhythms.

Intriguingly, even in early infancy, the characteristics of an interaction partner seem to be able to draw out of infants very different and long lasting patterns of interaction – with frequent but short bursts of engagement and positiveness with some partners (e.g., with fathers) and with fewer, longer bursts with others (e.g., with mothers) (Feldman, 2007). Infants are also sensitive to interactive contingencies, with greater maternal contingent smiling leading to more infant social bids (McQuaid, Bibok & Carpendale, 2009), and greater maternal affective attunement leading to more infant responsiveness (Markova & Legerstee, 2006); conversely, disruptions of interpersonal engagement lead to negative reactions in 2 and 3 month old infants (Cohn & Tronick, 1984; Murray & Trevarthen, 1985; Nadel et al, 1999).

The importance of rhythms of touch in infancy is well known: Brazelton (1986) showed that neonates are already sensitive to patting rhythms that put them to sleep as opposed to those that alert them. Caregivers vary in their touching habits (some preferring affectionate and others stimulating touch), giving rise within a few months of birth to dyadic ‘cultures’, which differentially affect mother-infant regulation when touch is disrupted (Moreno, Posada & Goldyn, 2006).

Cultures differ widely in their preferred modalities of engaging with their infants. For example, German mothers, in contrast to Cameroonian Nso mothers, show an increasing preference for visual and a decreasing preference for proximal responses over the first twelve weeks of infant life. This difference leads to a gradual decrease in proportions of mutual gaze in the Cameroonian Nso dyads, even relative to the lower incidence of face-to-face interactions (Kaertner, Keller & Yovsi, 2010).

Prosody in vocal expression is also a powerful source of emotional information; especially in infant-directed speech, it reveals emotionality and interpersonal intentions.  Even foetuses are sensitive to the specific intonational contours of their mothers’ speech to the extent that by the time they are born, neonatal crying already reflects language-specific contours, with a rising intonation for French and a dropping intonation for German (Mampe et al, 2011). Compared to adult-directed speech, infant-directed speech has higher pitch, exaggerated contours and greater rhythmicity (Fernald, 1989) and has been argued to emerge from the uninhibited expression of emotion (Trainor, Austin & Desjardins, 2000).

Within the first half of their first year of life infants discriminate and respond differently to vocal expressions of approval, prohibition, attention and comfort in infant-directed speech (Fernald, 1993; Bryant & Barrett, 2007).  The ability to differentiate prohibition from approval so early in life opens further doors to cultural influence – giving infants access to others’ directive intentions and cultural norms before words can do so (Reddy, Liebal, Hicks, Jonnalagadda & Chintalapuri, 2013). The possibility of such permeability in the boundaries of both categorical affects and vitality contours suggests that infants may share with us more about our emotionality than we realise (see for instance Feldman, 2007 on ‘background emotions’, and Anderson, 2009 on ‘affective atmospheres’).

Two domains of emotional engagement in infancy might serve as examples of deeply social emergence. One is the domain of self-consciousness and the other is the domain of humour. In both areas, it is being directly addressed by others, or being drawn into involvement by their attention, approval, interest, amusement  (‘second-person’ engagements), that is crucial for typically developing emotional responsiveness and social cognition (Reddy, 2003, 2008; Schilbach et al, 2013).

The onset of mutual gaze leads to self-conscious affectivity – with coy smiles occurring early in the first year of life before infants develop a conceptual self (coy smiles are gaze or head aversions during the peak of smiles that are structurally similar to embarrassed smiles in adults; Reddy, 2000; Colonnesi, et al, 2012).  Mutual gaze has clear neurological substrates not only in adults (Schilbach et al, 2006), but also in 4 month-olds (Grossman, Parise & Friederici, 2010). Similarly, infant responses to the intentional actions of adults seems to be easier when the actions are directed towards them, allowing them, for instance, to make anticipatory adjustments to being picked up by their mothers as their arms approach (Reddy, Markova & Wallot, 2013).

Shyness and showing-off in response to other people’s attention are important regulators of intimacy and attraction in interpersonal interactions (Reddy, 2005) and must themselves be regulated.  Cultures vary enormously in their assessment of these self-directed reactions. Positive shyness can be experienced as appealing and charming or annoying and inadequate (Shweder, 2003); showing-off can be seen as positive and to be encouraged or as offensive and to be discouraged (Levine, Caron & New, 1980); and shame can be seen as a positive social offering or as itself something to be hidden (Miake & Yamazaki,1995).

Humour is another phenomenon which is fundamentally relational. From around 8 months or so infants engage in clowning, repeating actions which have previously (often accidentally) elicited laughter from others, in order to re-elicit laughter. They also tease others in a number of ways – deliberately and watchfully approaching a forbidden object (with a focus on the emotional reactions of the other rather than the object itself), playfully offering and withdrawing objects, disrupting others’ routine actions – such as clearing the newspapers to hoover the floor- watchfully or playfully (Reddy, 1991, 2005).

These attempts are often significantly impaired in children on the autistic spectrum. In all these cases, the meaning and survival of the infant’s clowning or teasing lie within the frame of the responses received from the adults, just as the adults’ expectations and openness to the infants’ attempts must lie in the history of previous interactions and infant responses to their own attempts to arouse laughter (Reddy, Williams & Vaughan, 2002; Mireault, Poutre, Sargent-Hier, Dias, Perdue & Myrick, 2012). The developmental literature knows little, as yet, about context and audience effects in the emergence of these different emotional phenomena – shyness, shame, showing-off, clowning and teasing.

To sum up, emotions are open phenomena: open in their existence, open in their development and open in their engagement with the world from the earliest points in infancy. We are only now beginning to understand emotions as more than categorical states, and to unpack the extent to which infant sensitivity to the affective rhythms and synchronies of their interactions with the world constitutes and sustains their emerging psychological identity.



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