A new study of 62 countries reveals that people around the world may have more similar emotional responses to various situations than previously thought.
In the study, conducted by researchers at the University of California (UC) Riverside, a “situation” is everything we experience. This includes watching Netflix in the living room with your family or getting a sunburn. There are simple situations, such as being in a room that’s too warm, and there are more complex situations, such as attending a social event where you encounter a potential romantic partner.
Whether people across the world report the same feelings and emotions in those situations — or vastly different ones — was at the heart of the study.
“Even though individuals within the same country have more similar experiences than those in different countries, the differences are barely noticeable,” said lead author Daniel Lee, a graduate student from UC Riverside. “The world is a much more similar and unified place than we once thought.”
Lee said the research is the most far-reaching study of everyday situations ever. He teamed with researchers across the globe to include 62 countries in an effort to determine whether people around the world experience life very much the same, or differently.
The team looked at data from 15,318 members of university and college communities: 10,771 females; 4,468 males; and 79 did not choose a gender. Most participants were in their early to mid-20s. Answers were gathered using a 90-question assessment previously developed called the Riverside Situational Q-Sort.
“This project is unprecedented. Very few international studies look at relationships between more than two countries, let alone 62,” said Lee, a doctoral researcher in the lab of UCR Distinguished Professor David Funder.
The current study, published in the Journal of Personality, is an expanded version of a 2015 study from Funder’s lab called “The World at 7:00: Comparing the Experience of Situations Across 20 Countries.”
That study asked participants from 20 countries what they were doing at 7 p.m. the previous night. Then, researchers looked to see how people experienced them.
Their finding: “The difference among countries is smaller than expected; and the difference within countries is much greater.” In other words, people from different countries aren’t that different, and people within the same country aren’t as similar as expected.
In the new expanded study, the participants were asked to relate an experience they “remember well” from the previous day.
Both studies found that most experiences are “mildly positive,” meaning people within a country are more likely to have similar situations than those in different countries, and that the difference is small in how we experience situations among countries.
The first finding, about positive experiences, contradicts previous psychological research about how people remember situations.
“Previous research on memory in general would suggest that negative events are more memorable than neutral or positive events,” Lee said.
There were some differences in the two studies’ findings. “The World at 7:00” found the U.S. and Canada were the two countries most alike in terms of experiences. In the new study, the U.S. and Australia were most alike. In “The World at 7:00,” the two countries most different in terms of experiences were South Korea and Denmark. In the new study, the two countries most different were Malaysia and Jordan.
The country most like the rest of the world in “The World at 7:00” was Canada. Four countries tied for that distinction in the new study, including Canada, Australia, Chile, and the U.S.
Two countries registered as the most different from the rest of the world in “The World at 7:00”: Japan and South Korea. In the new study, Japan was the most different from other countries.
The country most alike within its own borders in “The World at 7:00” was Japan. In the current study, people within the borders of the Netherlands were most like their countrymen; Japan ranked quite low — No. 56 out of 62 — in terms of homogeneity, a finding that perplexed researchers.
The country with citizens least like their own countrymen was South Korea in “The World at 7:00;” in the current study it was Singapore.
Lee said the findings hold a lesson worth being mindful of in the current climate of unrest during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We can only hope that seeing we’re all unified in the challenges we face during these trying times will give people an increased sense of global community,” he said.
The current study represents the first finding published from Funder’s broad-sweeping International Situations Project. Data from this and other studies related to the International Situations Project is available online.