UA Interview: Psychologist Gerben van Kleef
How We Influence Each Other With Our Emotions
For centuries, the opinion dominates that emotions are good for nothing because they hamper rational behavior. Those who show their emotions are often seen as hysterical and inappropriate for a serious position in our society. Just think of the presidential primaries of the Democrats in the US., during which there was more attention for the tears of Hillary Clinton than for the content of her campaign.
Actually, emotions play a crucial role in our social life. Interactions with others are important sources of emotions, and these emotions may in turn influence our social behavior in various ways. Social psychologist Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam is an expert in the social approach to emotion, which views emotion as occurring between rather than just within individuals. In his new (Dutch) book, Op het gevoel – Hoe we elkaar beïnvloeden met onze emoties, he shows how we constantly influence each other with our emotions, consciously and unconsciously, and why expressing emotions is essential for successful social relationships.
The prevailing opinion is that people should suppress their emotions in order to function properly, and that those who let their emotions run wild are seen as hysterical and irrational. You argue that this is a completely outdated view. Can you explain why?
“The idea that people should suppress their emotions is based on the traditional view of emotions as threats to rationality. According to this view, emotions cloud our reasoning and interfere with rational decision making. Although emotions can indeed influence our thinking and actions, this is only part of the story. In my book I show that emotions occur at least as much between individuals as they occur within them. People do not just feel their emotions, they often also show them – on their faces, through their tone of voice, and through bodily postures. This means that other people get to see these emotions and may be influenced by them. I show that other people’s emotions are a rich source of information upon which we base our judgments of situations, gauge others’ intentions, and choose our own course of action.”
“In short, we use other people’s emotions to make sense of situations and inform our behavior, and we can use our own emotions to influence others. There is nothing irrational about this. In fact, it is highly rational to make use of information that is provided by others’ emotions. It would be irrational to ignore such information, because it may be more reliable than what people say out loud. Likewise, it seems highly rational to use our own emotions in smart ways to exert influence on other people.”
From what age are children able to use the emotions of others as a source of information? And how does this ability develop over life?
“Classic research on social referencing shows that the informational function of emotional expressions already works with very young babies. In these experiments, babies were put on a so-called visual cliff. The babies could crawl around on a solid construction about a meter and a half above the floor. On the other side of the construction was an interesting toy that they wanted to approach. However, to get to the toy they had to crawl over a thick glass plate, below which they could clearly see the ground. This created a scary situation. The cliff looked dangerous, but at the same time it appeared as though they could crawl over the glass. Now in one condition there was a caregiver on the other side of the cliff, who was smiling encouragingly. In the other condition the caregiver looked frightened. The babies were much more likely to cross the cliff when their caregiver smiled than when h/she looked fearful. This shows that even young babies (about 9 months) who do not yet master language can already use the emotions of others to inform their behavior.”
“This hard-wired ability is further developed over the life span. Parents use anger to discipline their children, and pride and happiness to encourage desired behavior. Adults influence each other all the time by means of their emotions, whether consciously or unconsciously. Romantic partners use each others emotions to determine how they are doing, so that they can deliver support when needed. Negotiators use the emotions of their counterparts to estimate how much they can ask and when they should give in to secure an agreement. Organization members use the emotions of their boss to infer whether their performance is on track. Conversely, people may also use their emotions deliberately to influence others and get something done. We see this among young children (consider the tamper tantrum), in romantic relationships, at the work floor, in politics, in sports, everywhere around us.”
In your opinion it’s always preferable to show real emotions, instead of pretending to be happy, sad or angry. Why is this so important for successful social relationships?
“It can be effective to show fake emotions to get something done, but this requires extraordinary acting skills. Most people who fake emotions produce inauthentic expressions that others can see right through. Once people get the impression that a person shows fake emotions, this undermines trust and they feel manipulated. In many cases this backfires. If we show the emotions that we really feel, we provide important information to other people about how things are going, what we want, what we need. This allows other people to adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, if a person is sad about the death of a friend, she will be much more likely to receive consolation and support from his or her spouse, friends, and colleagues when she shows the sadness than when she does not. When she suppresses the emotion, others will not know what is going on and cannot act appropriately.”
When is the expression of anger beneficial for a social situation. And when is it better to control it?
“Anger is a very powerful emotion that can do a lot of good but also a lot of harm. As Aristotle already pointed out, the challenge is to express anger in the right proportions, at the right time, in the right situation, in the right way, and to the right person. When this happens, anger can have favorable consequences. In romantic relationships, expressing anger can help to put issues on the agenda that would otherwise perhaps remain undiscussed. Negotiators who express anger in the right way tend to get better deals than those who remain neutral. A sports coach who shows anger may increase the motivation and performance of followers. What is crucial, is that the anger is perceived as appropriate. Showing anger when there is no good reason to do so is likely to have detrimental consequences. But anger that is understandable can work very well. For instance, if a boss shows anger to a group of workers who have performed below standard, there is a good chance that they will put in extra effort to improve their performance. It is also important that the anger is directed at concrete behavior (e.g., bad performance) as opposed to at people themselves. Anger also works better when targets are motivated to consider what the anger may mean and where it comes from. If they are not motivated or able to think carefully about this (for instance because they are under time pressure or experience stress due to a deadline) they are more likely to respond to another person’s anger based on their gut reactions, which is a recipe for conflict. Finally, there are cultural differences with regard to the ways in which people interpret anger and respond to it. Anger is seen as relatively appropriate in many Western cultures, and sometimes it is even seen as a sign of assertiveness (for instance in the US). But in other cultures anger is seen as inappropriate (for instance in Japan) or childish (for instance among the Inuit, or “eskimo’s”). In these cultures expressions of anger are often counterproductive.”
Sometimes we are aware of the influence of the emotions of others, but it often happens unconsciously. Can you give an example of a situation in which we can easily get influenced by emotions of others without noticing it?
“One emotional process that can happen largely unconsciously is emotional contagion. When you enter a room full of cheerful people, it is almost impossible to remain grumpy. In such situations you often see that people automatically catch the mood of a group, even though this may happen outside of their awareness. The same is true for negative emotions such as anger or sadness. The contagiousness of sadness is one reason why depressed people suffer from poor social relations. Their sadness makes other people feel bad as well, which leads these people to avoid interactions with the depressed person (which in turn makes the depression even worse).”
Some people are highly sensitive to the emotions of others. Do you think this is a useful characteristic in daily life?
“Sensitivity to others’ emotions is definitely a good thing, but as with most good things you can also have too much of it. Total lack of sensitivity turns people into poor social players, because they fail to notice what moves other people. But oversensitivity has its downsides too. A manager who is too sensitive to the negative emotions of her employees stands the risk of getting depressed or losing track of the job that needs to get done. Moderate to high levels of emotional sensitivity contribute to successful life, but oversensitivity can backfire.”
Gerben van Kleef (1977) is professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam. His primary research interests revolve around emotion, power, and conflict. He also worked at the University of California, Berkeley and has received several prestigious awards and scholarships.