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Underlying Motivations Influence Expression of Emotions

New research reveals that a person’s emotional reaction to a situation is linked to the degree to which they are motivated to feel or not feel certain emotions about the situation. This insight challenges the belief that a person’s emotions are influenced automatically — in an unconscious, immediate response to other people’s emotions.

In the study, Stanford psychologists examined why some people respond differently to an upsetting situation. Their study found that when participants wanted to stay calm, they remained relatively unfazed by angry people, but if they wanted to feel angry, then they were highly influenced by angry people.

The researchers also discovered that participants who wanted to feel angry also got more emotional when they learned that other people were just as upset as they were, according to the results from a series of laboratory experiments the researchers conducted.

Their findings reveal that people have more control over how their emotions get influenced than previously realized, the researchers said. The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“We have long known that people often try to regulate their emotions when they believe that they are unhelpful,” said James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

“This set of studies extends this insight by showing that people can also regulate the way they are influenced by others’ emotions.”

To learn how people react to upsetting situations and respond to others around them, the researchers examined people’s anger toward politically charged events in a series of laboratory studies with 107 participants. The team also analyzed almost 19 million tweets in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

In the laboratory studies, the researchers showed participants images that could trigger upsetting emotions, for example, people burning the American flag and American soldiers abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The researchers also told participants how other people felt about these images.

The researchers found that participants who wanted to feel less angry were three times more likely to be more influenced by people expressing calm emotions than by angry people.

But participants who wanted to feel angry were also three times more likely to be influenced by other people angrier than them, as opposed to people with calmer emotions.

The researchers also found that these participants got more emotional when they learned that others also felt similar emotions to them.

“The degree to which people said they were motivated to feel or not feel certain emotions predicted how much they would be influenced when they were exposed to emotions from other group members,” said Amit Goldenberg, the lead author on the study and a Stanford doctoral candidate in psychology.

Investigators also looked at social media where they could see how emotions played out in real time. To do this, they focused on the unrest that emerged on Twitter following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

After analyzing almost 19 million Twitter posts, the researchers found that Twitter users were more influenced by stronger emotions expressed by people in their social network compared to weaker and calmer reactions.

They also found that when Twitter users responded to tweets that were similar in emotional intensity to their earlier reactions, the users amplified their emotions to express stronger outrage than others in their social network.

“The social dimension of emotions, particularly in response to socio-political events, is becoming increasingly important with the use of social media and people’s constant exposure to the emotions of others in online platforms,” wrote the study’s authors.

Historically, researchers have largely assumed that people’s emotions get influenced automatically — in an unconscious, immediate response to other people’s emotions, said Goldenberg. His team’s new research challenges that perspective, he said.

“Our emotions are not passive nor automatic,” Goldenberg said.

“They are a little bit of a tool. We have the ability to use our emotions to achieve certain goals. We express certain emotions to convince other people to join our collective cause. On social media, we use emotions to signal to other people that we care about the issues of a group to make sure people know we’re a part of it.”

Further research needs to be done in order to understand the relationship between people and their emotions. One area of future investigation is whether the desire of people to want to see and experience certain emotions around them lies at the core of how they choose their network of friends and other people around them.

“It seems that the best way to regulate your emotions is to start with the selection of your environment,” Goldenberg said.

“If you don’t want to be angry today, one way to do that is to avoid angry people. Do some people have an ingrained preference for stronger emotions than others? That’s one of my next questions.”

Source: Stanford University

Underlying Motivations Influence Expression of Emotions

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). Underlying Motivations Influence Expression of Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 15, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2019/07/05/underlying-motivations-influence-expression-of-emotions/148185.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Jul 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Jul 2019
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