It has long been theorized that concepts could not be fully understood by a members of a culture unless that culture had a word for them. However, according to new research published in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion, it appears that people do not need to be able to name an emotion in order to understand it. The study suggests that the part of the brain that processes language is not crucial to the understanding of emotion. Rather, it may be that the ability to sense and process emotional signals is not tied to the ability to use language but is, instead, a biological byproduct of human evolution.
The study’s authors compared two cultures with different languages. German has separate words for anger and disgust. Yucatec Maya, on the other hand, has a word for anger but no specific word for disgust. Participants were shown photographs of faces and were asked to name the feelings the person in the pictures were experiencing. German-speaking participants were able to name two separate emotions using the words for disgust and anger in German. Yucatan Mayan participants described both emotions as anger. The researchers viewed this as proof that the different languages offered different options for describing these feelings.
Then native speakers of both languages were shown photographs of human faces that displayed mixed emotions. The photographs were created using software that combined separate emotions displayed by the same person. The software enabled the investigators to control how much of each emotion was expressed in each photograph so that each participant saw the same mix of emotions.
Participants were then shown two photographs of the same person. One was the original photograph and the other was the same subject displaying a randomly chosen different mix of emotion. Participants were asked to identify which of the pictures they had previously viewed. This basic test was repeated multiple times for each of the participants.
According to Disa Sauter, co-author of the study, “Earlier research has found that people who have different words for two emotions do better on this task when the dominant emotion in the two photographs is different, like when one is mainly angry and the other one is mainly disgusted. But is this because they internally label the faces angry and disgusted, or is it because emotions are processed by basic human mechanisms that have categories like anger and disgust regardless of whether we have words for those feelings?”
The investigators were particularly interested in how the Yucatec Mayan-speaking participants would do compared to the German speakers, who had access to more precise language. In the final analysis, however, both groups did equally well on the task, with speakers of both languages doing better when both faces displayed different dominant emotions.
The authors concluded that having specific words for different emotions does not provide an advantage when it comes to identifying those emotions. “Our results show that understanding emotional signals is not based on the words you have in your language to describe emotions. Instead, our findings support the view that emotions have evolved as a set of basic human mechanisms, with emotion categories like anger and disgust existing regardless of whether we have words for those feelings,” said Sauter.