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How does Culture, psyche, and body make each other up?

The authors of the commentary papers (Fiske, Thomsen, & Thein, 2009; Maass, 2009) raise important points both about the way embodiments prepare us to learn about fundamental relationships and the way these are learned in particular cultural contexts. Both commentaries also raise the question about how embodiments may be employed in ways involving conscious deliberation versus ways escaping conscious awareness.

Fiske and colleagues note that people often arewell aware of theway their comportment shapes their affect and attitudes (see also a more elaborated account in Fiske’s fascinating (2004) chapter 3). Further, they may choose to either go along or reject situational demands to carry their bodies in a certain fashion. Maass too raises this issue when she discusses how situationally scripted behaviors—such as those employed in doing one’s profession—may trigger corresponding mindsets.

These are important questions and ones that are undertheorized in social psychology. They are undertheorized not so much because of our field’s theoretical blindspots but more so by our field’s methodological approaches to studying embodiment. That is, the goal of much early embodiment research in social psychology was to make sure that any embodiment effects were not the products of rational deliberation. (In one classic example, participants were induced to either shake versus nod their heads by giving them a cover story about testing out the fit of headsets (Wells & Petty, 1980)). Such cover stories were essential, not because social psychologists enjoy tricking people but because they want to avoid either demand effects or simple self-perception explanations. (Many embodiment effects surely do involve self-perception somewhere in the causal chain, but the purpose of the cover story is to provide participants with a putative reason why they are, for example, nodding their head, making it less likely that they consciously, deliberately reason that, ‘‘I must agree with this message because I am nodding my head a lot.’’)

Because of this desire to go beyond demand explanations or very simple self-perception explanations, psychologists have often explored embodiment scenarios where participants are not consciously attending to the way their bodies are being manipulated or for what purpose (see also IJzerman & Semin, in press). From the standpoint of experimental design, this is reasonable enough. However, it does exclude from consideration many of the interesting real-life cases that Fiske and colleagues and Maass write about. It is important to find out how embodiment effects play out in the real world—when and how people consciously use them to manipulate their own thoughts and feelings, how they use them as they design environments and provide affordances for themselves and others, and how they may strategically employ them to resist the influence or manipulation of other people. In connection to attribution research, it might also be interesting to explore when people, in their everyday lives, use their comportment to infer their thoughts and feelings versus when they use their comportment to discount those feelings (‘‘I kneel down before G-d, so I must feel subservient’’ versus ‘‘The only reason I feel subservient is because I have to kneel down in the middle of the ceremony.’’ Or ‘‘I always feel so pure after going to the Mikvah (a Jewish ritual bath)’’versus ‘‘The only reason I feel refreshed is that I have just been submerged in water.’’ In one case, the feeling is inferred from the body’s comportment—and this comportment or feeling is believed to be revealing. In the second case, the person discounts their feeling as only produced by the comportment of their body—an artificial comportment or state that does not express one’s ‘‘true’’ affect or beliefs.)

Salient situational cues may affect the attributions people make, and so may lay beliefs or individual differences in how much people are sensitive to and trust the feedback from their bodies. Schnall, Haidt, Clore, and Jordan (2008), for example, found that when they induced disgust in participants, those who showed the greatest attention to their internal body states also became the most condemning of moral infractions depicted in various vignettes.

Parallel effects may play themselves out with respect to cultural differences as well—but in ways more complicated than might first appear. People in different cultures may be more practiced in, and more sensitized to, different internal states; and they may thus be more likely to show embodiment effects for those sorts of states. However, focusing solely on sensitization and elaboration may miss something important—namely, the way people use their bodies to dampen emotional states. Keeping a stiff upper lip or tightening ourbodies to reignin our emotionsare alsoways we use ourbodies to control our affective life (Zajonc & Markus, 1984). Thus, cultural norms that demand stiffness, distance, and restraint to stifle our emotions also make us use our bodies—they just do so in the service of counteracting rather than amplifying our emotions.

We have not reviewed work on the way different emotions get somaticized versus ‘‘psychologized’’ for people in different cultures (Dzokoto & Okazaki, 2006; Fels, 2002; Kleinman & Good, 1985; Marsella & Yamada, 2007). Nor have we dealt with the question of cultures hypocognizing versus hypercognizing emotions and the way this may alter the feedback loops between body and psyche (Levy, 1973)—which is to say that there are a great many links to explore not just within our discipline (as Maass and Fiske and colleagues note) but there are also a number of links that will bring us into contact with neighboring disciplines as well.

It has been said that cultural psychology is the study of the way ‘‘culture and psyche make each other up.’’ Much is packed into this seven word phrase and the complex positive and negative feedback loops it involves. The loops involving the way culture, psyche, and body make each other up—as individuals act on, are acted upon, or resist their cultural environment—promise to be even more fascinating.


Dzokoto, V., & Okazaki, S. (2006). Happiness in the eye and the heart. Journal of Black Psychology, 33, 94–112.

Fels, A. (2002). CASES; Mending of hearts and minds. New York Times. Retrieved online on December 8, 2008 from http://query. 20and%20minds&st=cse

Fiske, A. (2004). Four modes of constituting relationships: Consubstantial assimilation; space, magnitude, time, and force; concrete procedures; abstract symbolism. In N. Haslam (Ed.), Relational models theory: A contemporary overview (pp. 61–146). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fiske, A. P., Thomsen, L., & Thein, S. M. (2009). Differently embodying different relationships. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 1294–1297. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.697

IJzerman, H., Semin, G. (in press). The thermometer of social relations: Mapping social proximity on temperature. Psychological Science.

Kleinman, A., & Good, B. (Eds.). (1985). Culture and depression. Berkeley: University of California. Levy, R. (1973). Tahitians. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Maass, A. (2009). Culture’s two routes to embodiment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 1290–1293. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.696

Marsella, A., & Yamada, A. (2007). Culture and psychopathology. In S. Kitayama, & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (pp. 797–818). New York: Guilford.

Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G. L., & Jordan, A. H. (2008). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1096–1109.

Wells, G., & Petty, R. (1980). The effects of overt head movement on persuasion. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 219–230.

Zajonc, R. B., & Markus, H. (1984). Affect and cognition: The hard interface. In C. Izard, J. Kagan, & R. Zajonc (Eds.), Emotions, cognitions, and behavior (pp. 73–102). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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