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Emotion Expression in Context: Full Body Postures of Christian Prayer Orientations Compared to Specific Emotions

Abstract

For many people, emotions are frequently expressed in the context of communication with their God. The practice of prayer is clearly embodied and affords the study of full body expressions of emotions in a relevant context. Surprisingly uncharacterized in empirical scientific research, we document full body postures representing prayers in different emotional registers (i.e., prayer, worship, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, confession, anger toward God) and compare them to postures representing specific emotions varying on two basic affective dimensions (valence and dominance), and to specific relevant emotions (gratitude for thanksgiving, guilt for confession and repentance). US community participants with knowledge of Christianity (n = 93) were asked to show how they would express these feelings in the full body by positioning a small mannequin. Postures were analyzed to derive objective measurements of the body’s vertical, horizontal, and total space, and subjective perceptions of the same dimensions from a separate sample. An observational coding system was also developed to code for components of the body, such as head and arm positions. Results show distinct differences between postures representing the overarching categories of prayer versus worship. Further, postures representing praise and to a lesser extent those of thanksgiving were found to be expansive and oriented upward, slightly smaller than postures of positive valence but bigger than dominance. Postures representing repentance and confession were found to be constrictive and oriented downward, even smaller than postures of negative valence and similar to submission. These results add to our limited knowledge of postural expressions of emotions and particularly that of positive emotions. Implications for the psychology of religion are also discussed.

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Data Availability

The data presented are freely accessible through the Open Science Framework: https://osf.io/awzs5/.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Lani Shiota for her guidance and help with data coding. We also thank Stephanie Cassidy, Daniel DeVault, Jordan Hepburn, and Camden Nelson for their help with data collection and coding, and Kerry O’Brien for editing. Data collection was facilitated by the Duke Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center and Duke Behavioral Participant Pool.

Funding

Preparation of this manuscript and data collection were funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant awarded to the first author (Grant #60836).

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Correspondence to Patty Van Cappellen.

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Van Cappellen, P., Edwards, M. Emotion Expression in Context: Full Body Postures of Christian Prayer Orientations Compared to Specific Emotions. J Nonverbal Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-021-00370-6

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Keywords

  • Religion
  • Prayer
  • Embodiment
  • Gratitude
  • Positive emotions