Cultural Background Impacts Thoughts About Death

A new study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science shows how culture can influence how people respond to mortality.

In particular, investigators found European-Americans confronted with thoughts of death are likely to try to protect their sense of self, while Asian-Americans are more likely to reach out to others. Psychologists label the topic of thinking about death as “mortality salience;” much of the research has been performed on people of European descent. In their studies, scientists have learned that “mortality salience” appears to cause people to think in dramatic ways. For example, “Men become more wary of sexy women and they like wholesome women more. People like to stereotype more. You see all these strange and bizarre occurrences when people think about the fact that they aren’t going to live forever,” said researcher Christine Ma-Kellams, a doctoral student at the University of California Santa Barbara. Researchers say another interesting observation is that people try to protect their sense of self, by putting down people who aren’t like them or distancing themselves from innocent victims. But, as a cultural psychologist, Ma wondered if this reaction might be different in other cultures. In particular, she wanted to look at people of Asian backgrounds, whose sense of self is generally more linked to people around them. Ma-Kellams recruited both European-Americans and Asian-Americans for the study. Each person was told to either write down thoughts that come to mind when thinking about their own death – or to write down their thoughts about dental pain. (Those people were the control group.) Then they were asked to decide what bail should be set for a prostitute and given a survey on their attitudes toward prostitution. As other research has found, European-American people who had thought about death were much harsher towards the prostitute than those in the control group. But Asian-Americans who thought about death were much kinder toward the prostitute – even though they started out more conservative. In a second experiment, participants were presented with a less extreme case, a story about a university employee who’d been injured in an accident through no fault of his own. The same result was found; European-Americans were more likely to blame him if they’d contemplated their own mortality, while Asian-Americans were less likely to blame him. This aligns with research that finds that European-Americans and Asian-Americans think about the self very differently. “For European-Americans, everyone wants to save themselves after thinking about death because loss of self is the worst possible consequence,” Ma-Kellams said. “Asians don’t necessarily see themselves in that individualistic kind of way. Self is very much tied up with the people around you.” In this case, that means that when they’re threatened with their own mortality, Asian-Americans apparently reach out to other people. Source: Association for Psychological Science

Brooding, Proud Guys Score High on Sex Appeal

Brooding, Proudl Guys Score High on Sex Appeal We are all familiar with media advertisements in which sullen looking men, often accompanied by a beautiful women, project an aura of sexuality and decadence. The ‘picture’ sells the product, whatever the product may be. The perceptions created by the ads may be accurate as investigators discover women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men. University of British Columbia researchers say the findings may help explain the enduring allure of “bad boys” and other iconic gender types. The study — which may cause men to smile less on dates, and inspire online daters to update their profile photos — finds dramatic gender differences in how men and women rank the sexual attractiveness of non-verbal expressions of commonly displayed emotions, including happiness, pride, and shame. Authors point out that very few studies have explored the relationship between emotions and attraction, and this is the first to report a significant gender difference in the attractiveness of smiles. Another key contribution of this study is the unique inquiry into the attractiveness associated with displays of pride and shame. The study is published online in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion. “While showing a happy face is considered essential to friendly social interactions, including those involving sexual attraction – few studies have actually examined whether a smile is, in fact, attractive,” said psychologist Dr. Jessica Tracy. “This study finds that men and women respond very differently to displays of emotion, including smiles.” In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adult participants rated the sexual attractiveness of hundreds of images of the opposite sex engaged in universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes). The study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. In contrast, male participants were most sexually attracted to women who looked happy, and least attracted to women who appeared proud and confident. “It is important to remember that this study explored first impressions of sexual attraction to images of the opposite sex,” said Alec Beall, a UBC psychology graduate student and study co-author. “We were not asking participants if they thought these targets would make a good boyfriend or wife – we wanted their gut reactions on carnal, sexual attraction.” He said previous studies have found positive emotional traits and a nice personality to be highly desirable in a relationship partners. Tracy and Beall said that other studies suggest that what people find attractive has been shaped by centuries of evolutionary and cultural forces. For example, evolutionary theories suggest females are attracted to male displays of pride because they imply status, competence and an ability to provide for a partner and offspring. According to Beall, the pride expression accentuates typically masculine physical features, such as upper body size and muscularity. “Previous research has shown that these features are among the most attractive male physical characteristics, as judged by women,” he said. The researchers say more work is needed to understand the differing responses to happiness, but suggest the phenomenon can also be understood according to principles of evolutionary psychology, as well as socio-cultural gender norms. For example, past research has associated smiling with a lack of dominance, which is consistent with traditional gender norms of the “submissive and vulnerable” woman, but inconsistent with “strong, silent” man, the researchers said. “Previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression,” Beall added. “Generally, the results appear to reflect some very traditional gender norms and cultural values that have emerged, developed and been reinforced through history, at least in Western cultures,” Tracy said. “These include norms and values that many would consider old-fashioned and perhaps hoped that we’ve moved beyond.” Displays of shame, Tracy said, have been associated with an awareness of social norms and appeasement behaviors, which elicits trust in others. This may explain shame’s surprising attractiveness to both genders, she said, given that both men and women prefer a partner they can trust. While this study focused on sexual attraction between heterosexual men and women in North America, the researchers say future studies will be required to explore the relationship between emotions and sexual attractiveness among homosexuals and non-Western cultures. Overall, the researchers found that men ranked women more attractive than women ranked men. Source: University of British Columbia
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