Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Goetz spent seven weeks in China this past spring semester, as part of her sabbatical, conducting research on emotional experience and expression.
“For my sabbatical project, I studied cultural influences on sympathy and responses to suffering,” Goetz said.
According to Goetz, research suggests that humans evolved a capacity for empathy and concern for others to raise our vulnerable offspring and to facilitate cooperation in groups.
While in China, Goetz conducted her research as a visiting scholar in the psychology department at Tsinghua University in Beijing with Dr. Kaiping Peng.
“This capacity has clearly expanded to respond to people we aren’t related to—even strangers—and exists in all cultures around the world,” she added. “However, cultures have norms for whom sympathy should be felt for and how much sympathy should be shown. In this research, we were interested in comparing experiences of sympathy in two highly distinct cultures—China and the U.S.”
Goetz had the opportunity to visit significant religious and cultural sites, such as the Confucius and Lama Temples and Tai Shan Mountain, which has been a pilgrimage destination since at least 200 B.C.
“As a social and cultural psychologist, my research involves surveys and laboratory experiments,” she explained. “The cultural component of the research means we spend time making sure that our research questions and materials are culturally appropriate and relatively consistent. For example, just trying to translate terms like sympathy and compassion into Chinese can be quite challenging.”
Goetz said that a great amount of modern psychological research suffers from the limitation of being conducted in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies.
“One of my goals is to address this limitation and expand our understanding of human psychology to be more diverse,” she added. “I also find it fascinating to study how the culture we live in influences a very personal psychological process, such as our everyday emotional responses.”
This research is part of an ongoing research collaboration between Goetz and Peng. Goetz first visited Tsinghua University in 2009 and has travelled there three times with Centre students to conduct research. Sangyi Hu (’16), Qinpu He (’16), and Kunhan Tang (’17) all contributed to research at Tsinghua University. A paper was recently published about the research titled “Sympathy and responses to suffering: Similarity and variation in China and the United States.”
Goetz is also working on a follow-up paper on the role of individualism and collectivism in response to others. She said the research shows that people who value collectivism are more likely to feel sympathy and care for others. Her research showed this pattern was true whether individuals were American or Chinese.
by Kerry Steinhofer
July 5, 2018