Thanks to Dr. Phil: Cultural Influence in Emotional Understanding

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Thanks to Dr. Phil: Cultural Influence in Emotional Understanding

Angeldeep Kaur

Dr. Phil is a prominent figure on television in modern day America, bluntly describing the emotional truths of people who came to him for advice in the matter of their life and relationships. He is among many others who shape the way in which American culture views and understands emotion. Using Mark Schulz's experimentation regarding innate human ability to read and interpret emotion, a case can be made for the impact of culture on the ways in which emotions are expressed and understood. The Scarlet Letter serve's as a great case study for another instance of a culture that regulated and shaped emotional understanding of its citizens, as they used this understanding as a power to maintain status-quo within Puritan society.

Marc Schulz from the psychology department discussed the idea of having an innate ability to read and understand emotions. He spoke with us about an experiment carried out to study the accuracy of the observations made by their interpreters without them being provided with any indication of what the subjects they were viewing should be feeling, or how to read particular emotions. The study was carried out using video footage of couples talking about a conflict that had arisen between them. The subjects had been asked to document their emotions at the time by viewing the video footage recorded while they were talking to each other. The assessments made by the subjects about themselves were then compared to the assessments made by the college students participating in the study. The college students identified emotions with remarkable accuracy, even though they had not been formally trained in the field. While Marc accounted for the observed accuracy by suggesting that human beings have an innate ability to read emotions being exhibited in those around them, I believe there is a cultural element to the conclusions that the college students reached. This kind of cultural influence on understanding and reading emotions and conditions can be seen in The Scarlet Letter.

Culture has a huge role to play in the way in which emotions are expressed, understood and defined. While there are some aspects that will be constant cross culture (with a smile indicating happiness), a lot of the more detailed ways of expressing oneself are culturally affected. For example, in the modern day US of Dr. Phil and Oprah doing psychological studies of people's behavior on television for the whole country (if not the whole world) to see, college level American students have an understanding of emotion that is based in the present day psychological explanation of emotion. People are quick to point to the personality disorders that people have as described in clinical terms, using terms such as A.D.D. and depression in common vocabulary. This argument allows for the congruent results obtained by Marc Schulz, as he was using a group of people who had grown up watching marital disputes being worked out on television for everyone to see while a trained professional provided a clinical interpretation of the emotions he or she was seeing. Both for the group of couples as well as the group of college students viewing and trying to understand the couples have been exposed to the same kind of culture, and thus would reach the same conclusions when trying to describe emotion. The overabundance of professional terminology being used to describe emotions by laymen is a cultural phenomenon that does not extend all over the world. Personal experience from living in another country has showed the lack of such a tendency to psychoanalyze everything in other populations. It seems that the basic way to explain emotion comes from the cultural situation a society finds itself in.

Within the world of The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynn found herself in a Puritan society, who's reading of emotion and psychological states is very far removed from the understanding we have today. The citizens of Boston at that time were deeply entrenched in the social system based on the religion of Puritanical Christianity, complete with the hierarchy that was set up for the leaders of the society and the roles that were ascribed to them. People were conditioned to read and understand situations purely within this framework and literally refused or were unable to see anything that went contrary to what they understood. The starkest example of this comes in the form of the Governor's sister, Mistress Hibbins. There is every clue to show that Mistress Hibbins was a witch; she spoke of her excursions on her broom and even asked Hester to join her some night in her exploits. Yet, the society refused to acknowledge this aspect of Mistress Hibbins' behavior. It was unthinkable that the Governor would have a sister who was a witch. The society lived within its convenient fictional world and refused to read the signs that were in front of them. These fictions regarding reading emotions and states pervade every aspect of their lives. To them the world is made of black and white binaries, and all the citizens fall into some category or another. They are unable to read emotions in the complex way we do today, as can be seen by the fact that they considered Hester the epitome of sin and were unable to understand what she felt or even recognize it. Their reductive system forced people into a strictly categorized system that was well demarcated.

The other sinner existing in this situation was Dimmesdale. Since his sin was unknown to the people, he was both spared and shamed because of a categorized reading of his character. Since he was the minister that of the community Hester lived in, the function of his existence was to provide spiritual guidance for the people he advised. It was impossible to think that the minister of the village to do any spiritual and cultural wrong. He committed the heinous act of adultery and began to fade away because of the guilt that he felt, and yet no one read his emotions to correctly ascertain the issue he was grappling with. The idea that he was the other party to be shamed in the sin of Hester Prynn was unconscionable to the citizens, leading to a cultural inability or refusal to see the signs that highlighted his sin.

Placing Dimmesdale and Hester Prynn on the outside of this societal system, one placed out by the citizens, the other removed because of his own conscious, allowed them to see the world around them using a different sensibility. To a certain extent, being excommunicated from Puritan Boston placed them a different culture and gave them new tools with which to read the emotional and psychological circumstances around them. Hester is able to rise above the constraints of the society that believed her to be sinful and was able to find a way in which to understand her place there. She could read the shame within those around her and began to see that she wore the scarlet letter to pay penance for all the sins her fellow men had committed. Similarly, Dimmesdale was acutely aware of the falseness of the Puritan categorization because of his own transgressions. He was able to transcend the sensibilities of the society he was a part of and was able to truly feel the shame that came with being sinful. He was able to be a much more effective preacher because his sermons regarding sin came from his own experiences of trying to make peace between the duality of his private and public lives. His ability to read emotions and understand them is completely overturned by this personal experience, allowing him to go beyond his cultural understanding.

The symbol A made by the meteor in Chapter XII can be seen as one such sign that is read differently by two different groups of people exposed to two versions of a culture. While the citizens of the Boston colony see the A as a mark that Governor Winthrop, who died that night, had ascended to the heavens and become an Angel. However, Dimmesdale saw the sign in the sky illuminating the town to reveal his sin as an adulterer to them. As seen in this instance, the citizens insist on continuing to see what they want throughout the novel, and persistently understand emotions as they were culturally trained to do, in order to keep the Puritan system in power. This is proved wrong about Hester and Dimmesdale, because they were removed from the preached cultural essence of Puritanism.

The world of The Scarlet Letter helps further illustrate the argument that the culture of a particular set of people can shape the way in which they understand the world around them, including the emotions and psyche's of other human beings around them. Thus, the cultural capital used in such a situation cannot be taken lightly. Perhaps repeating some of Marc's experiments using interpreters from other cultures and strata of society could provide more concrete data to support the idea.

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