Cambodians are more likely than some other nationalities to associate sadness and fear with anxiety and satisfaction with acquisition, according to a new psychological study.
The study, conducted by Japan’s Doshida University in collaboration with Boston College in the US and Essex University in the UK, sought to identify differences in emotional responses across cultural boundaries.
About 20 participants in each of Japan, Cambodia, the UK and US were presented with nine emotions as prompt words. They were then invited to describe situations in which they might feel those emotions and the responses were put into 38 situation categories.
Some emotions elicited similar responses regardless of nationality. For example, “sleepiness” overwhelmingly elicited descriptions of situations falling into the “drowsiness” situation category.
The word “fear” predominantly prompted responses in the “anxiety” category, although while just half of all participants from other countries gave this kind of response, 82 per cent of Cambodians did.
However, while participants from other nations tended to associate “sadness” with situations of “loss”, “disappointment” or “suffering”, more than half of Cambodians responded to the prompt with situations characterised by “anxiety”, particularly over the future, their employment status or the health of loved ones.
While conceding that he didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of Cambodian politics or society, the study’s lead research Dr Mariko Kikutani said he believed “the general poverty of the country” was the major influence on the responses, with a sense of desperation reflected in Cambodians’ responses to the study possibly reflecting an inability to rely on their government for support.
“I sensed that Cambodian people are feeling helpless for negative situations, especially sad and fearful ones,” Kikutani wrote in an email. “This might be because they are so anxious because there is not so much they can do to improve sad or fearful situations.”
Poet, painter and practicing community psychologist Chath Piersath – born in Cambodia but raised in the US and dividing his time evenly between the two – said the study’s results didn’t surprise him.
“A lot of stress factors Cambodians experience now relate to social and political stressors. Immediate survival takes over all concerns,” he said. “The whole political and social atmosphere in this city affects people; it’s a dog-eat-dog place.”
One aspect of the study gave Piersath cause for more positive reflection. While participants from the other three countries corresponded situations of achievement with the prompt “satisfaction”, Cambodian respondents opted for situations of acquisition, that is taking or being given something.
Rather than greed, Piersath saw this as indicative of a generous culture craving reciprocity in a world that has failed to display generosity in recent decades.