Recently, I’ve talked about the book How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and I explained the basics of the theory of constructed emotion. I would like to go a step further, and discuss some of the implications.
If emotional categories are socially constructed, I’d expect different cultures to have different categories. Perhaps we have a lot of categories in common, since our cultures are all in contact with one another, and different cultures might be fulfilling similar needs. But the construction of emotions predicts that there must be some exceptions–emotional categories that only exist in some cultures and not others.
Dr. Barrett gave many examples of emotions that exist in other cultures, but not in US culture. For example, in Czech culture, “litost” is described as “torment over one’s own misery combined with the desire for revenge”. In the Ilongot tribe in the Philippines, “liget” is described as a feeling of exuberant aggression, usually felt by a group of people competing against another group. While these concepts are intelligible to us, we rarely think or talk about having exactly those combinations of feelings, and we have few expectations for how we would respond to those feelings.
I found these examples to be quite compelling, and not just because of the sheer number of examples that Dr. Barret described. Once I understood what a new emotional concept looks like, I realized that we’re creating new emotional concepts all the time! Even without looking outside the US, you can find plenty of relatively recent emotional concepts created right here on the internet.
One of the oldest emotional concepts to originate on the internet is “lol”. I remember when we started using that in middle school, and it immediately became a joke that nobody actually laughs out loud when they type “lol”. “lol” denotes laughter, but I think this literal definition disguises the fact that it expresses a different emotion entirely. The meaning is a bit context-dependent, usually expressing light amusement, especially in response to something so absurd that it deserves no further comment. Or maybe that’s just what it means to me, and it means something different to you.
There are many other acronyms, some that have stuck around, and others that have gone in and out of fashion. There’s “omg”, “epic fail”, “fml”, “smh”, “wtf”, “yolo”, and I’m sure the rest of you can think of more examples than me. Special shout out to “tfw” which is like a meta-emotion you have when you have a feeling that can only be expressed by describing the situation that produced the feeling.
Like with the “litost” and “liget” examples, each of these emotional concepts is intelligible even if you’ve never heard of them before. You look up “smh” and see that it stands for “shaking my head”, and you can pretty much guess what it means from there. Even so, the meaning of the acronyms tends to diverge somewhat from the concepts or expressions that they’re based on. And before long, we have people saying “el oh el” in real life, because actual laughter doesn’t adequately capture their emotional response to the situation.
One distinction between the “lol” and “litost” examples, is that “litost” is an emotional state, whereas “lol” is merely an emotional expression. While this is an important distinction, I wonder, does an emotion have to be given an explicit name in order for it to count as a distinct emotional concept? Perhaps some emotional concepts do not have names, but they do have socially understood forms of expression.
Going a step further, perhaps some emotional concepts are not even expressed by means of words, but instead through pictures. Case in point…
Lots of people have seen at least some of these before, even if you don’t know where they came from. These are called “rage comics” and you can read about them on Know Your Meme. The one on the left, “trollface”, is one of the most widely-recognizable. It refers to the pleasure you get from trolling someone, how is that for a novel emotional concept?
Here’s another example. During the time that I was reading Dr. Barrett’s book, I had occasion to hang out with my brother, who was always chatting with his girlfriend on the phone. I discovered that he communicates to his girlfriend mostly using stickers. (Stickers are not to be confused with emoticons like “:)”, or emoji, which are those little smiley images.) I honestly don’t know what all these mean, or in some cases I read them differently from how my brother does. Between my brother and his girlfriend, it’s like an emotional pidgin.
It’s not merely that we come up with new emotional concepts on the internet. It’s more like, whole new emotional dialects are being created on a regular basis. I’m sure you can come up with your own examples based on your own knowledge of memes.
I would be remiss not to mention how this might impact internet users outside the US. About 60% of the anglophone internet is from the US. For people outside the US, and even some people inside the US, I imagine there’s a steep learning curve, as people learn not only the emotional languages of the internet, but also the emotional language of the US simultaneously.
I don’t know if emotion psychologists would consider all of these things to be examples of emotional concepts, but I find it fascinating to think of them in this way. Signs of the construction of emotions may be all around us.
Caveats: Dr. Barrett is a psychologist, and her book is not just backed up by anecdotes, but also references to experiments and understanding of neurology. I have very little understanding of psychology or neurology, I only have the anecdotes.