The next time a fellow traveller plonks his bottle of Kowloon Soy Sauce, or the Yu Kee Oyster Sauce on the table as you start dinner in some exotic destination, don’t laugh. These items are as powerful – even for an adult – as that tattered toy bunny you took to bed when you were a baby.

Research shows that adults develop a sense of attachment to icons, probably in the same way as children develop attachments to maternal figures. This phenomenon is built on a human need for bonding. As we grow older, it is no longer our caregiver or our cuddly tody; we direct our attachment to a familiar culture in a process called “cultural attachment”. This can be via affiliation with a social group, allegiance to a set of social values or a nod to familiar cultural symbols. Cultural attachment is important because it affects our reactions to threats.

Researchers, including Professor Ying-yi Hong of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, studied a group of students in a clinical setting. The subjects, who were Singaporeans, had not spent a significant amount of time overseas except for some short-term travel and brief exchange programmes. Importantly, the main cultural attachment of these subjects was undeniably Singaporean.

One of the national symbols Singaporeans most identified with was the Merlion – a mythical creature with a lion’s head and the body of a fish that is an icon of the city state. The image was found to evoke similar emotions that participants from the United States had for the Statue of Liberty and Chinese students had for the terracotta warriors of Xian.

To measure the emotional response of students, researchers used a test called skin conductance response (SCR) to record how much sweat they produced in their fingers. The idea is that with higher levels of stress, even at the subconscious level, the body secretes more sweat to cool itself in response.

Stressful situations stimulate our glands to produce more sweat, thereby producing a higher SCR. The SCR is a proven test as it relies on participants’ involuntary response, meaning that participants are mostly unaware even when this response happens.

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Participants in the test were exposed to two sets of images. The first was a neutral image (such as a mobile phone) and a threat image (such as a gun pointed at them). The second set consisted of a control image (such as a treasure chest) that had no cultural value, and the other was a cultural image (such as the Merlion) that held cultural value for most people. The second set of images was flashed quickly so that the brain would not register it consciously, but the subconscious mind would pick it up.

The results showed a clear difference in the emotional responses elicited. Participants who saw the threat-and-control (the gun and treasure chest combination) images registered a higher SCR suggesting a higher level of stress. On the other hand, those who saw the threat-and-Merlion images showed a significantly lower SCR. The familiar image of the Merlion had apparently reduced the sense of threat and made the subject calmer.

This result – cultural symbols affect how we process threats and can reduce bodily responses towards a threat – might have important implications for governments.

They can take a leaf from marketers who have long known and cleverly harnessed the emotive power of symbols. For example, when a consumer purchases something sold by Nike, they are not only buying a pair of shoes, but are avowing the can-do YOLO (you only live once) culture embedded into the logo. In the same way brands have the ability to evoke consumer loyalty, cultural symbols like the Merlion have the power to connect citizens back to their own country in a comforting and assuring way when in foreign lands.

Countries that send missions and troops overseas could help their displaced soldiers ease into new posts by incorporating cultural symbols into their environment, such as providing familiar food, magazines or music. This is how bagpipes played at the close of day during the second world war continually provided a powerful motivation to battle-worn soldiers. Comforting them with music from home reminded them what they were getting up the next day to fight for.

Even in peacetime, countries can do well to harness the power of cultural symbolism to galvanise large groups into proactive action or to defuse tense mob situations. Countries need to continually develop social rituals, narratives and cultural icons so that in times of war or political and economic uncertainty citizens can fall back upon a secure cultural base. The effect is akin to a child glimpsing out of the corner of his eye that his caregiver is nearby.

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Companies that send a lot of employees overseas could leverage the mediating effect of cultural symbols. It has also been suggested in previous studies that attachment of expatriates to their countries’ cultural symbols is associated with a better sense of well-being and adjustment in the foreign environment. Simple things like decorating lodgings in styles similar to those back home, hosting social events with fellow citizens and providing access to familiar grocery brands go a long way towards helping employees adapt.

So whether it’s for an upcoming trip, or an important presentation, or sending a child to college in another state, it can ease anxieties to pack something familiar from home – it will likely prove a more powerful stress reliever than the conscious mind can even contemplate.

Wei Jie Yap is a PhD candidate at the Decision, Environmental and Organisational Neuroscience Lab at NTU. Georgios Christopoulos is an assistant professor of decision neuroscience at Nanyang Business School, NTU. They, along with Professor Hong, conducted the research