Author: Daniel Fessler

Abstract

Cross-cultural comparisons can a) illuminate the manner in which cultures differentially highlight, ignore, and group various facets of emotional experience, and b) shed light on our evolved species-typical emotional architecture. In many societies, concern with shame is one of the principal factors regulating social behavior. Three studies conducted in Bengkulu (Indonesia) and California explored the nature and experience of shame in two disparate cultures. Study 1, perceived term use frequency, indicated that shame is more prominent in Bengkulu, a collectivistic culture, than in California, an individualistic culture. Study 2, comparing naturally occurring shame events (Bengkulu) with reports thereof (California), revealed that shame is associated with guilt-like accounts in California but not in Bengkulu, and subordinance events in Bengkulu but not in California; published reports suggest that the latter pattern is prominent worldwide. Study 3 mapped the semantic domain of shame using a synonym task; again, guilt was prominent in California, subordinance in Bengkulu. Because shame is overshadowed by guilt in individualistic cultures, and because these cultures downplay aversive emotions associated with subordinance, a fuller understanding of shame is best arrived at through the study of collectivistic cultures such as Bengkulu. After reviewing evolutionary theories on the origins and functions of shame, I evaluate these perspectives in light of facets of this emotion evident in Bengkulu and elsewhere. The available data are consistent with the proposition that shame evolved from a rank-related emotion and, while motivating prestige competition, cooperation, and conformity, nevertheless continues to play this role in contemporary humans.

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
Author: Daniel Fessler

Abstract

Although fire is inherently dangerous, leading many animals to avoid it, for most of human history, mastery of fire has been critical to survival. Humans can therefore be expected to possess evolved psychological mechanisms dedicated to controlling fire. Because techniques for starting, maintaining, and using fire differ across ecosystems, the postulated adaptations can be expected to take the form of domain-specific learning mechanisms rather than fixed behavioral templates. After outlining features that such mechanisms are predicted to possess, I review the literature on fire play in western children, finding that attraction to and interest in fire is widespread, experimentation with fire often begins in early childhood, and fire play typically peaks in late childhood or early adolescence. The latter aspect stands in contrast to results from a survey of ethnographers which reveals that, in societies in which fire is routinely used as a tool, children typically master control of fire by middle childhood, at which point interest in fire is already declining. This suggests that fire learning is retarded in western children, arguably due to patterns of fire use in modern societies that are atypical when viewed from a broader cross-cultural perspective. Together with the fact that western entertainment media provide a distorted portrait of the properties of fire, this pattern, while limiting the value of naturalistic observations of fire learning in the West, nevertheless has the benefit of providing a strong testing ground for future experiments exploring the universality of the psychology underlying the control of fire.

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture

Abstract

Comparing food taboos across 78 cultures, this paper demonstrates that meat, though a prized food, is also the principal target of proscriptions. Reviewing existing explanations of taboos, we find that both functionalist and symbolic approaches fail to account for meat's cross-cultural centrality and do not reflect experience-near aspects of food taboos, principal among which is disgust. Adopting an evolutionary approach to the mind, this paper presents an alternative to existing explanations of food taboos. Consistent with the attendant risk of pathogen transmission, meat has special salience as a stimulus for humans, as animal products are stronger elicitors of disgust and aversion than plant products. We identify three psychosocial processes, socially-mediated ingestive conditioning, egocentric empathy, and normative moralization, each of which likely plays a role in transforming individual disgust responses and conditioned food aversions into institutionalized food taboos.

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture

Comparing mortuary rituals across 57 representative cultures extracted from the Human Relations Area Files, this paper demonstrates that kin of the deceased engage in behaviours to prepare the deceased for disposal that entail close and often prolonged contact with the contaminating corpse. At first glance, such practices are costly and lack obvious payoffs. Building on prior functionalist approaches, we present an explanation of corpse treatment that takes account of the unique adaptive challenges entailed by the death of a loved one. We propose that intimate contact with the corpse provides the bereaved with extensive veridical cues of death, thereby facilitating acceleration of a grieving process that serves to recategorize the deceased as no longer a relationship partner, opening the door to relationship replacement and a return to social functioning. The benefits of exposure to such cues are tempered by the costs of exposure to cues of disease risk, a balance that in part explains the relative rarity of highly invasive mortuary practices that exacerbate the latter factor. We conclude by discussing implications of our model for contemporary mortuary practices in the developed world.

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture