A Child’s Concept of Person Across Cultures: A Socio-Emotional View

Emotions are a key factor in child concept development. Through experiencing how others respond to and express emotions, children cultivate an understanding of how they themselves should behave, and what to expect from other people. This process varies greatly according to different cultural values and moral standards, which are passed down to children by family members, teachers and peers via numerous ways of learning.

This system is complex, yet it is often oversimplified in psychological research, which tends to favour cognitive theories which view the human mind like a mechanical object.

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In order to obtain a fuller understanding of how the mind acquires concepts, I would argue that an integration of socio-cultural, emotional and cognitive elements is required.

To that end, socio-emotional theory explores the ways in which emotional development occurs in a social context and acts as a catalyst for child concept acquisition. This article will explore how this process unfolds via socio-cultural mechanisms and varies within and across various cultures.

Culture is defined in various ways; for the purpose of this article, culture represents:

“the set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours shared by a group of people, communicated from one generation to the next”. (Matsumoto, 1996)

All considered, it is worth mentioning that caution should be taken in order to avoid segregating cultures in a way that treats them as a black box, or the values within them as cultural syndromes. Individual differences also play a role in how people conceive of themselves and others, and these change considerably throughout development.

Personality Across Cultures

Across psychological literature, personality is categorised under the Big 5’ personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, which are condensed from over 18,000 English trait and emotion terms. This Western construct of personality is widely used to denote a generalised “human nature”. However, this Five-Factor Model is clearly not sufficient to categorise personality across all individuals.

Geertz (1975) describes how Balinese people do not conceive of people in terms of their underlying dispositions, but rather in relation to the social role they have. They are not labelled with a unique name, but are differentiated using labels that make reference to their place within family and community systems.

Boys and girls in Bali receive birth order name from a small typical group of names for each birth order position. These names may vary due to caste, regional customs and variations in the Balinese language between the north and the south of the island.

Furthermore, speakers of the A’ara language in the Solomon Islands use a hierarchical clustering of personality descriptors centred on leadership and followership.

Geertz (1975) therefore describes the Western concept of person as:

“a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic centre of awareness, emotion, judgement… a rather peculiar idea within the context of world’s cultures” (p. 48).

Cultural Values

The ways in which Western and non-Western cultures contrast with each other in their modes of categorising personality are consistent with their divergent value systems. The Schwartz value survey has been used to investigate how certain principles are ascribed different meanings across cultures.

This survey has been conducted across more than 77,000 participants in 70 countries. Results reveal strong dichotomies between individualist and collectivist values; the former place greater importance on the value of stimulation and self-direction, while the latter prioritise unity and compliance.

Credit: Rafael López

In line with such values, people across cultures differ in their perceptions and responses towards emotional expression. People in individualistic societies are more likely to give in to anger than those in collectivist societies. This is exemplified in America, where the expression of emotions like anger is tolerated in the interest of self-assertion.

By contrast, Philippine Hiligaynon people do not conceptualise people as having autonomous inner lives, placing emphasis instead on the importance of harmony amongst kinfolk. Here, the expression of anger is fear-provoking as it poses a threat to social cohesiveness.

This is also demonstrated amongst nomadic Uktu Eskimos who view kinship as a vital bond and perceive emotional control to be essential, particularly regarding anger, which is described with the same word as immaturity.

Certain cultural values regarding emotions also closely tie in with the environmental pressures and constraints experienced by a society. Ifalukian people live on a small island in Micronesia that is periodically endangered by typhoons. In such an environment, collaboration, compliance and nonaggression can be a factor in survival.

The cultural order that is fostered against this milieu is reflected in the manner in which emotions are expressed, linking in with wider ethnotheories about the nature of the person. For instance, when determining an appropriate emotional response to a person, Ifalukian islanders must consider first the social status and relationship history of every individual involved. This is centred on a collectivist value system that views the emotions experienced by one person as a direct influence on the emotions of another, in a process known as ‘emotional symbiosis’.

Early Concept Development & Temperament

Arguably, the primary foundation or ‘core knowledge structures’ on which concepts develop originate in the womb, as biological predispositions constrain and bias attention towards certain configurations of stimuli.

Prenatal influences of a mother’s emotions on child temperament modify post-natal physiological and emotional reactions to stimuli. For example, children can be characterised as either ‘inhibited’ or ‘uninhibited’ from as young as four months old, based on the motor activity of their limbs when presented with novel stimuli. Those who thrash and flex are more likely to exhibit shy and restrained behaviour by the age of one, whereas those whose limbs remain relaxed are more likely to be sociable and emotionally spontaneous.

Over the course of development, this emotional-cognitive system interacts with socio-cultural mechanisms, creating individual differences in person concepts. Children in different societies vary in their display of socio-emotional characteristics as early temperamental features elicit different reactions from socialisation agents.

Credit: Emiliano Ponzi

The contextual development perspective theorises that social initiative and behavioural control are fundamental aspects of socio-emotional functioning, and that cultures differentially emphasise the importance of these temperamental characteristics.

In Western societies, in line with individualistic values, social initiative is indicative of social maturity, whereas anxious or inhibited behaviour is considered to reflect social incompetence.

On the other hand, in collectivist cultures, self-control is more strongly and consistently emphasised as this is more likely to maintain interpersonal and group harmony. In China for example, shy-inhibited behaviour from children is positively regarded and encouraged, and those who behave in such a way have more positive self-concepts than their Western counterparts.

East Asian parents also differ greatly in their perception of the level of temperamental characteristics displayed in their children compared to parents from Western societies. Taiwanese parents rate their infants as displaying greater emotional reactivity than American parents. Moreover, Thai parents rate shy and fearful behaviour in their children as less serious, less troublesome and less likely to represent global personality traits than do American parents.

In cases where a behaviour is viewed as unacceptable or abnormal by caregivers, children may be discouraged to display it; on the other hand, if a behaviour is viewed as acceptable or even adaptive, children may be encouraged to display it.

Hence, based on caregivers’ attitudes towards certain behaviours, children might develop an understanding of what constitutes a culturally accepted ‘person’ and formulate perceptions of themselves and others accordingly.

In this way, socio-emotional evaluation and responses from cultural models toward temperamental characteristics may mediate the links between culture and children’s person concepts.

The means by which parents will go about encouraging or discouraging emotional behaviour are culturally defined and reflect broader cultural value systems. Parents in collectivist cultures tend to exercise more control over their children, socialising them toward obedience and modesty, while parents in individualistic cultures show more warmth towards their children, emphasising the value of self-affirmation.

For instance, Chinese mothers engage in fewer conversations regarding emotions with their children and are less likely to help children in understanding their feelings than Euro-American mothers.

Language & Emotional Experience

In storytelling events, a child’s understanding of person is subject to reconstruction. Many East Asian parents use storytelling to communicate moral and social standards through the invocation of shame, using children’s past misbehaviours as a didactic resource.

Shame constitutes one of the four cardinal virtues in Confucianism, prevalent in East Asian culture, with 113 terms for shame just in the Chinese language. By controlling the child’s sense of shame, the caregiver alerts the child of moral wrongdoings in the hope that it will encourage the child to behave better in future and avoid condemnation by others.

On the other hand, American parents typically use storytelling for entertainment, as the expression of shame is viewed as harmful to children’s self-esteem. In this way, different meanings attached to emotions can influence how people are conceptualised across cultures.

In line with the Whorfian hypothesis of linguistic relativity, the way in which an emotion is defined within a given culture can also influence the way it is consciously experienced. For instance, certain emotions might be unelaborated or ‘hypocognised’, seemingly resulting in a lack of conscious experience of those emotions.

In Tahiti, sadness is hypocognised due to there being no specific or true equivalent to the Western term, particularly in the context of the loss of a person which is considered a minor matter. Thus, compared to in Western civilisations, relationships with others are less emotionally charged.

In Samoan culture, the term ‘alofa’ has the general meaning of love, however it is primarily expressed by a subordinate towards an authority figure in the form of respect and humble generosity. In the family context, it is particularly expected that a brother should feel ‘alofa’ towards his sister as a familial duty.

Credit: Havi Mandell

This emotional experience contrasts greatly with the Western idealisation of love and ties in with individualistic versus collectivist conceptions of person hierarchies. However, this is not to say that Samoans cannot feel love in the same way westerners do, or that Americans do not feel ‘alofa’.

More subtly, it is argued that cultural goals and values can be socialised through grammatical structure. In collectivist cultures, imperative language such as “help your mother” is used to indicate the importance of obedience, whereas interrogatives such as “help your mother, won’t you?” are used more frequently in individualistic cultures to highlight the importance of self-direction and choice.

In these respects, ethnotheories of emotion operate as implicit and pragmatic strategies for daily social-emotional exchanges and are embedded in broader theories of person.

Emotional Expression

The six basic emotions – anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise – are universally recognised and expressed even without written language or sight. However, across cultures, certain facial configurations and expressions are found to influence perceptions of social dominance.

Models with lowered-brows and non-smiling poses are perceived as more dominant than those with raised-brows and smiles. Among children, there are reports of correspondence between lowered-brow expressions and assertive behaviour during free play and competitive tasks.

This reflects within-culture variations of emotional expression; lower class individuals are more likely to express negative emotions than upper class individuals in Western culture. On the other hand, in Japan, higher class individuals are more likely to express anger, whereas American higher class individuals are less likely to do so.

Cultural divergences are further exemplified in variations of emotional decoding. American participants judging high intensity facial expressions tend to infer a less intense experience, while Japanese participants tend to judge low intensity facial expressions as indicating a more intense experience than is shown.

Further, Japanese people are more cautious about displaying emotions compared to Americans, who tend to show exaggerated facial expressions. This is in line with how cultures differ in the kind of affect they consider to be ideal. East Asians reportedly want to feel low arousal positive states whereas North Americans preferably experience high arousal positive states.

Independent vs interdependent self-construals have been found to be a mediating factor between cross-cultural differences in the experience of self-conscious emotions like embarrassment. Americans report significantly less embarrassability than Asian Americans and Chinese, and average significantly more highly on independent self-construals.

Consequently, emotional display rules are also culturally dependent. In one study, Japanese and American participants’ facial expressions were analysed whilst they viewed graphic videos of bodily mutilation. Results indicate that compared to Americans, Japanese participants mask negative emotional expressions such as fear, disgust, anger or sadness in the presence of the experimenter, although they unreservedly showed those emotions when they were alone. This reflects collectivist notions about the display of negative emotions posing a threat to social harmony.

This type of explicit knowledge of emotional display rules has been found to be present by middle childhood. For instance, young South Asians children can understand that one can feel angry but should not show anger on their face, demonstrating how cultural ideals regarding emotional expression are inherited via socio-cultural mechanisms.

Credit: Neeraj Parswal

This can vary both within and across cultures as a function of socialised gender norms. Indian girls are more appreciative of the difference between felt and expressed emotion earlier in development than Indian boys as well as British boys and girls, highlighting cultural patterns of gender socialisation.

These socialisation patterns reflect and perpetuate existing opportunity structures, preparing children for roles assigned to them based on their biological sex, which can stem from the division of labour in a given cultural community.

Gender segregation is understood by children early in development; at the age of three, children already use gender similarity to determine who they want to be friends with and who would share their preferences. For instance, children prefer to play with others who have similar emotional and interactional styles; girls find boys too aggressive whereas boys find girls too sedentary.

The Stability of Personality Traits

Finally, implicit theories about the flexibility or stability of personality can predict person concepts in the context of emotion.

Entity theorists who typically reside in individualistic societies tend to conceive of personality as a set of static, fixed traits. On the other hand, incremental theorists in collectivist cultures view personality as a dynamic set of qualities that can be altered depending on situational factors.

When making causal attributions for behaviour, incremental theorists are more likely to refer to the person’s internal psychological states like emotions. For instance, they suggest a fictional character stole “because he was hungry or desperate”.

Likewise, children who hold entity theories are more likely to make judgements about global moral traits than incremental theorists, who refer more to situational factors in response to hearing about the emotional state of the individual, such as “the boy was nervous about making a good impression”.

These divergent attribution styles are also evident in judgements of facial expressions. In a cartoon figure presentation experiment, Japanese people’s judgements of a target character’s facial expression are influenced by surrounding faces to a greater extent than those of Americans.


In sum, socio-emotional theory contributes to our understanding of how children acquire concepts of person across development through socio-cultural mechanisms. Concepts are particularised and refined via specific motivations both created by and contributing to cultural ideals regarding emotions. In this way, children’s person concepts develop in large part as a function of the cultural niche within which they are produced and influence the ways in which children behave and respond to others. Associations between socio-emotional development and culture in child conceptual development are thus bidirectional and transactional in nature, involving reciprocal influences that evolve over time.

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