American Psychological Association
Feeling concern about the suffering of others is considered a basic human response, and yet we know surprisingly little about the cultural factors that shape how people respond to the suffering of another person. To this end, we conducted 4 studies that tested the hypothesis that American expressions of sympathy focus on the negative less and positive more than German expressions of sympathy, in part because Americans want to avoid negative states more than Germans do. In Study 1, we demonstrate that American sympathy cards contain less negative and more positive content than German sympathy cards. In Study 2, we show that European Americans want to avoid negative states more than Germans do. In Study 3, we demonstrate that these cultural differences in “avoided negative affect” mediate cultural differences in how comfortable Americans and Germans feel focusing on the negative (vs. positive) when expressing sympathy for the hypothetical death of an acquaintance’s father. To examine whether greater avoided negative affect results in lesser focus on the negative and greater focus on the positive when responding to another person’s suffering, in Study 4, American and German participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 2 conditions: (a) to “push negative images away” (i.e., increasing desire to avoid negative affect) from or (b) to “pull negative images closer” (i.e., decreasing desire to avoid negative affect) to themselves. Participants were then asked to pick a card to send to an acquaintance whose father had hypothetically just died. Across cultures, participants in the “push negative away” condition were less likely to choose sympathy cards with negative (vs. positive) content than were those in the “pull negative closer” condition. Together, these studies suggest that cultures differ in their desire to avoid negative affect and that these differences influence the degree to which expressions of sympathy focus on the negative (vs. positive). We discuss the implications of these findings for current models of sympathy, compassion, and helping.
Koopmann-Holm, B. & Tsai, J. L. (2014). Focusing on the negative: Cultural differences in expressions of sympathy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 1092-1115.