Ah, to be in love. Walking on a cloud, smelling the flowers, holding hands as you watch a beautiful sunset on the beach.
Well, at least that’s the version most European Americans bring to mind when they think of romance. But for Asian Americans, love, like other emotions, tends to be a bit more complicated.
Imagine participating in an experiment conducted by Lani Shiota, along with her colleagues Belinda Campos, Gian Gonzaga, and Dacher Keltner. You would have shown up at the lab with your lover, whereupon the two of you would be asked to have four different short conversations. In one conversation, you and your partner would be asked to tease one another, starting by making up a nickname for one another. In another, you would be asked to talk about a current problem that was causing you stress outside the relationship. In a third, you’d be asked to discuss a previous romantic relationship, regaling one another with what you each liked most and least about your previous partner, and what you’d learned from that relationship. And finally, you would talk about your first date. Each of you would take a turn as speaker and then listener, sharing your feelings and thoughts.
Then you would fill out questionnaires about the relationship, and about the feelings you had experienced during those four, potentially touchy, conversations. To what extent did you feel anger, contempt, love and shame during the exercises? Besides your own ratings, your conversations would later be coded by trained observers.
The participants in the actual study were chosen because both members of the couple were either Asian-American or European-American. The Asian-American couples averaged just over 20 years of age (just over 21 for the men), and had been in a relationship for about a year and 4 months. The Euro-American couples were similar, with both men and women averaging just over 20 years old, and relationships that had lasted about a year and a half.
When the researchers examined the partners’ emotions, they always found a negative correlation between love and negative emotions for Euro-Americans. The more a partner experienced love, the less he or she experienced shame, contempt, and anger during the challenging conversations. For Asian Americans, on the other hand, the feelings of love were generally positively correlated with the other emotions. For example, the more an Asian experienced love, the more he or she experienced contempt. And on the other side, having negative feelings did not preclude also having positive loving feelings for the Asian Americans.
Why the difference? Shiota and her colleagues connect their findings to an earlier literature suggesting that Asians often experience events and emotions in more complicated ways. They discuss an interesting analysis by Kaiping Peng and Richard Nisbett which traced this phenomenon to a basic difference in Western versus Eastern philosophies of life. European thought was highly influenced by Aristotle, who proposed 3 laws of knowledge. According to the Law of Identity, if A is true now, it must always have been true. The Law of Non-contradiction specifies that something cannot be A and not-A at the same time. And the Law of the Excluded Middle specifies that a given proposition of fact must be either true or false. All that makes if difficult for the positive feeling of love to coexist with negative feelings like anger, contempt, and shame.
East Asians, on the other hand, emphasize a set of principles common to Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Each of these philosophies emphasized dialecticism, which includes 1) the Principle of Contradiction, according to which two pieces of knowledge may appear to oppose one another, yet both be true; 2) the Principle of Change, whereby everything is continually in flux, and knowledge is a process rather than an outcome; and 3) the Principle of Holism, whereby everything in the universe is connected. Taking a dialectic yin-yang approach to love means that love can indeed comfortably coexist with those other rotten feelings.
Although it might seem that the Euro-American unilaterally positive approach is more pleasant, it is worth considering whether the dialectic approach might have some benefits. Given that all relationships eventually hit some rough times, the assumption that any negativity = not love could lead Euro-Americans to assume that the romance is over when there is any hint of bad feeling. Hence, an approach that assumes a blend of positive and negative might help account for the fact that Asian-Americans have a much lower divorce rate. So, maybe a little dialectism would be good for the rest of us who take an Aristotelian Hallmark-card approach to love.
Douglas Kenrick is author of The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. and of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life:A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.
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Peng, K., & Nisbett, R. E. (1999). Culture, dialectics, and reasoning about contradiction. American Psychologist, 54(9), 741-754.
Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., Gonzaga, G. C., Keltner, D., & Peng, K. (2010). I love you but…: Cultural differences in complexity of emotional experience during interaction with a romantic partner. Cognition and Emotion, 24(5), 786-799.