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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Disgust by any other name is still disgust

One controversy in cognitive research is whether language is critical for the perception of emotion.  In other words, can you feel something just as strongly if you can’t label that feeling?  According to scientists from the Max Planck Institute, the answer is yes.

The researchers compared German speakers to speakers of Yucatec Maya, a language spoken in the Yucatan Peninsula that has no separate word for ‘disgust’.  When shown photographs of people displaying various emotions, Yucatec Maya speakers could not distinguish verbally between ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’.  Does this mean that the Mayans do not perceive any difference between these two emotional states?

To answer this next question, the Germans and Mayans were shown a new set of photos.  First, they were shown a person displaying a digitally fine-tuned mix of emotions, such as 80% angry, 20% disgusted.  They were next presented with a pair of photos, the original and a picture of the same person but with a different mix of the same two emotions.  In some cases, the dominant emotion was the same in both pictures, but in other pairs of pictures it was reversed (one picture mostly angry but a little disgusted, the other mostly disgusted but a little angry).  The subjects were asked which of the two pictures was identical to the single picture they had just seen. 

This task is easier for most people when the dominant emotions in the non-identical picture are reversed. But is that due to the verbal labels people place on those emotions (I’m looking for a picture of a disgusted person, and the person on the left is more angry than disgusted)? In that case, having labeled the angry and the disgusted person the same way, the Mayans should do more poorly in the matching game. 

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the Yucatec Maya speakers performed the task just as well as the German speakers.  Mayans may not have a word for ‘disgust’, but they know it when they see it.