Think of the last piece of big news you got. How did you feel about it? Happy? Sad? Angry? Worried? Excited? Grateful? A little bit of all of the above? Experiencing multiple emotions at once may make it seem like you don’t actually know just how you feel about something—that you’re ambivalent, or indecisive, or wishy-washy. Psychologists would say it just means you’re emotionally complex. And according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, emotional complexity varies a lot between countries.
There are two definitions of emotional complexity that researchers tend to use. One is called “emotional dialecticism,” which just means feeling positive and negative emotions at the same time. The other is “emotional differentiation,” which is when someone is able to separate out and describe the discrete emotions they’re feeling.
In the study, Igor Grossmann and Alex Huynh of the University of Waterloo and Phoebe Ellsworth of the University of Michigan explored how emotional complexity manifests in different cultures. In a random sampling of 1.3 million English web pages from 10 different countries, they tracked how many times a positive-emotion word appeared within two words of a negative-emotion word. Sites from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore all had significantly higher rates of mixed emotions than the texts from six other countries—the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and New Zealand. South Africa came in somewhere in the middle of these groups.