How Emotions Affect Other People

parkinson300Brian Parkinson, Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford University

              • Someone gets angry with you
              • Someone tells you that they are angry with you
              • Someone tells you that someone else is angry with you

In each of these situations, another person’s emotion may affect our actions, thoughts, and feelings.  For example, we might reciprocate anger, be afraid of what the angry person might do, or feel guilty about what (they think that) we have done (Parkinson & Illingworth, 2009).  That emotions can affect other people is incontestable.  But what processes underlie these interpersonal effects?  Do they apply equally across all three situations?

Here’s one way in which another person’s emotions might affect yours.  You register the fact that they are angry with you.  You know that being angry implies an appraisal of other-blame (e.g, Smith & Lazarus, 1993).  You conclude that they see you as blameworthy (reverse engineering, Hareli & Hess, 2010).  Your reaction depends on whether you think that they have good reason for blaming you.

No doubt this information-based model approximates some of what happens in many situations (e.g., van Kleef, 2009).  When we receive information about someone else’s emotion, we may well draw inferences based on our emotion knowledge, and these inferences in turn may influence our own explicit appraisals.   But is this the only way in which emotions affect other people?  Do they merely provide information that shapes someone else’s information-processing?

Here’s another way in which someone else’s emotions might affect yours.  The volume and pitch of their shouting and their vigorous pointing gestures make you flinch and pull away.  Their stare is so intent that you divert your eyes.  You raise your open hands with palms forward, wanting them to back off.  You feel weak, mistreated.

Although this second scenario may also involve inferences about the other person’s intentions and appraisals, these inferences do not tell the whole story.  Aspects of their developing emotional orientation separately affect aspects of your response without you needing to register any integrated meaning.  Some of the responses contributing to your emerging emotional reaction are direct adjustments to unfolding physical characteristics of the other person’s movements, not appraisal-mediated reactions to the perceived meaning of these movements.

Interpersonal influence may also begin before the other person’s emotion is fully consolidated.  You may well react when they are still only on the way to getting angry.  And your reaction affects their emotion as it develops just as theirs affects yours.   What interactants end up expressing and feeling is not solely a function of private appraisals but is co-constructed between them in their ongoing transaction (Fogel, 1993; Parkinson, 2001b).  Neither person’s emotion is simply a cause or effect of the other’s.  Both are part of a dynamic relational process.

No single unidirectional causal process underlies all social effects of emotions.  For example, Van Kleef (2009) distinguishes two routes leading from emotion to interpersonal consequences, one mediated by inferences, the other based on more directly affective processes such as emotion contagion (e.g., Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994).  However, even this omits reciprocal causation.  Correspondingly, the methodologies most commonly used to investigate interpersonal influence are not well equipped to capture the complexity of unfolding co-constructed emotions.

Experimenters usually manipulate information about one person’s emotion as an independent variable (e.g., someone tells you that someone else is angry with you), and measure another person’s thoughts, actions, as dependent variables.  Often the “other person” is a simulation or fiction rather than a genuine human agent.  Even when information about the other’s emotion is delivered as part of an ongoing interaction, it is often pre-programmed rather than responsive to what the participant does.  Interactivity and direct mutual adjustment are systematically excluded (Swaab, Galinsky, Medvec, & Diermeier, 2011; see Parkinson, Phiri, & Simons, 2012 for an exception).

Results of experiments that manipulate emotional information confirm the operation of inferential processes.  Being told that someone is angry about what you are doing tends to make you do it less, especially if you want them to like you or are worried about what they might do if you keep on doing what you were doing (e.g., Van Kleef, De Dreu, Pietroni, & Manstead, 2006; Van Dijk, Van Kleef, Steinel, & Van Beest, 2008).  Plausibly, similar processes might also operate if you inferred someone was angry with you in a direct face-to-face interaction (e.g., someone tells you that they are angry with you, or someone just gets angry with you).  But do interpersonal effects really begin only after these inferences are made?

When emotions are operationalized as social information, it is not surprising that their effects depend on the social information that they provide (e.g., as inferential data).  More generally, if the causes of emotion are presented in precoded form (e.g., in words or conventionalised facial expressions), it becomes more likely that information-processing mediates their effects on emotional response (Parkinson & Manstead, 1993).   If such representational processes genuinely capture all interpersonal causes and effects of emotion, the methodological simplification presents no problems.  If they do not (as we have reason to believe), then information-based models (including the inferential model described above) give a distorted and partial picture.

Research findings concerning interpersonal effects of emotions should also help to elucidate the social functions of emotions (Van Kleef, Van Doorn, Heerdink, & Koning, 2011).  For many theorists, some or all emotions are designed precisely to align social relations (e.g., Keltner & Haidt, 1999; Oatley, 1992; Parkinson, 1996).  Anger serves as a warning, threat, or as a blame-diverting strategy (e.g., Parkinson, 2001a).  Embarrassment deflects uncomfortable social attention (e.g., Parkinson, Fischer, & Manstead, 2005) or serves to avert someone else’s negative evaluation following counternormative behaviour (e.g., Leary, Landel, & Patton, 1996).  Worry solicits comfort or alerts others to potential concerns (Parkinson & Simons, 2012).

But if these social functions really depend on inferentially mediated interpersonal effects, then their operation requires prior inferential capacities.  This implies that emotions only acquire social functions at a relatively late stage of evolution or individual development.  For example, children need to learn the meaning of an emotion before it can provide inferential information that changes their own appraisals (e.g., Sorce, Emde, Campos, & Klinnert, 1985).  It seems unlikely that emotions have no social functions until this developmental stage is passed.  If I needed to have worked out that someone else’s anger implies externally directed blame before it could affect me, directing blame externally could not be anger’s original purpose.  Anger’s social functions would then be consequences of its more basic individual functions rather than part of its primary raison d’être.

In my view, emotions’ social functions run deeper than this (and inferential effects depend on these more primary social functions).  Indeed, why would I respond to information conveyed by someone else’s anger with any urgency unless that anger had had a prior effect on me that I wanted to avoid repeating?  Many of the motives for responding to information about someone else’s anger are not themselves inferentially based.  They depend on the pre-inferential discomfort of having anger directed at you.

None of this rules out inferential effects or functions of others’ emotions.   Indeed, we may well strategically present emotions precisely to convey information that we know will affect other people.  However, exclusive use of information-based methodologies risks missing the more directly emotional phenomena on which inferential processes are premised.  Some emotions are interpersonal influence processes before their meaning is represented by those at whom they are directed, and before they are used deliberately to influence others.

If we want to understand emotions as truly interpersonal processes, our research needs to move beyond contexts where detached participants receive information about other people’s emotions.  Being told that someone else is angry with you is not the same as them telling you they are angry with you.  Them telling you that they are angry with you is not the same as them being angry with you right now, face to face, as you are interacting with them.  Capturing ongoing dynamic co-constructive processes of mutual emotional engagement or conflict can be a tricky business (e.g., Butler, 2011), but the challenges are worth facing.



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