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  1. Situated models of emotion hypothesize that emotions are optimized for the context at hand, but most neuroimaging approaches ignore context. For the first time, we applied Granger causality (GC) analysis to determine how an emotion is affected by a person’s cultural background and situation. Electroencephalographic recordings were obtained from mainland Chinese (CHN) and US participants as they viewed and rated fearful and neutral images displaying either social or non-social contexts. Independent component analysis and GC analysis were applied to determine the epoch of peak effect for each condition and to identify sources and sinks among brain regions of interest. We found that source–sink couplings differed across culture, situation and culture × situation. Mainland CHN participants alone showed preference for an early-onset source–sink pairing with the supramarginal gyrus as a causal source, suggesting that, relative to US participants, CHN participants more strongly prioritized a scene’s social aspects in their response to fearful scenes. Our findings suggest that the neural representation of fear indeed varies according to both culture and situation and their interaction in ways that are consistent with norms instilled by cultural background.