Emotions are indispensable tools in social interactions. The information they can provide when you are able to understand and interpret them is essential to social success. In a previous blog I summarized some of the psychological research involving emotions that can help a teen achieve academic success (Take Your Emotions To School! 5 Ways Emotions Guide Teens to Academic Success). Now let’s look at the ways in which an understanding of emotions can be applied to social situations.
Anger can make you feel as though you want to lash out at someone or something because it automatically creates physiological responses and thoughts that prepare you to protect yourself. So if you follow through with your impulse to vent your anger, will you then be relieved? Many people think so, which perhaps is why, when their anger is triggered, they slug a pillow, punch a wall, kick anything in their way, vent their anger in an aggressive sports activity, or vicariously do so by watching a violent movie. Such expression of anger is known as catharsis, a term borrowed from Greek literature, which basically translates as emotional release or purification. However, venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it fuels aggressive thoughts, increases aggressive responding, and does not lead to a more positive mood (Bushman, 2002). In one experiment, people were best off doing nothing at all rather than venting their anger, which led the researcher to conclude that distraction might be the best way to manage your anger until you calm down (Bushman, 2002).
But what about revenge? Does getting back at someone who made you angry actually help you? The emotion of anger can result in a willingness to endure the consequences of punishing someone who has betrayed you (de Quervain, Fischbacher, Treyer, Schellhammer, Schnyder, Buck, & Fehr, 2004; O’Gorman, Wilson, & Miller, 2005). However, researchers have found that thinking about punishing someone, or even punishing them, will cause you to continue focusing on your anger towards that person (Carlsmith, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008). Thus, wanting revenge or seeking it can keep you from moving on and truly regaining the sense of yourself that was lost in the betrayal. It is highly likely that wanting revenge when you are wronged is a result of the humiliation or shame you may have felt that accompanies an injustice.
Anger can also be displaced—a situation where you take out your anger on someone else. Imagine a situation where you became angry or annoyed at someone and then later are negative or hostile toward someone else. Psychologists refer to such behavior as displaced aggression because the target of your aggressive response is innocent. The possibility of displaced aggression may occur when you’re angry if you are prone to ruminate—to think about the situation over and over again. Researchers have found that the more you think about an annoying or anger-causing situation, the more you may end up in a negative mood that may affect your relationship with others (Bushman, Bonacci, Pedersen, Vasquez, & Miller, 2005). In fact, according to these researchers, the more you think about it, the greater the likelihood that you will take your anger or annoyance out on someone else. Ruminating about any emotion may lead you to focus on its cause and its physical effects, which can trigger the emotion repeatedly in you.
2. Your friend’s embarrassing behavior won’t necessarily reflect on you.
When a friend behaves in a socially inappropriate way, you may believe, as many people do, that your own reputation is going to be affected. Researchers studied six different situations in which observers rated people who were associated with someone whose behavior was publicly offensive, for example, someone who burped loudly (Fortune & Newby-Clark, 2008). The people who were associated with the offensive friends most often felt that they would be judged in a negative way, along with the offending person. However, observers did not harshly judge the people who were associated with the offenders. So when a friend makes a big social mistake, don’t think you will necessarily be judged along with them.
You may also be affected by a friend’s unintentional embarrassing behavior, especially if you are prone to be embarrassed yourself. Participants in a study were given a chance to help another person by letting them know of a circumstance that might cause them embarrassment, such as having ink on their face when they were about to have an interview, or a situation where someone had a temporary flaw, such as food that was stuck in their teeth (Zoccola, Green, Karoutsos, Katona, & Sabina, 2011). Participants in the study who were more sensitive to embarrassment themselves were more hesitant to help others if their helping behavior might embarrass the other person. Thus, if you are prone to embarrassment, you may want to give some thought to how you might feel if another person saved you from an embarrassing situation by nicely pointing out to you, for example, that you must have sat on some chocolate. Then decide if it is worth the risk of doing something similar for friends who might unknowingly embarrass themselves.
3. Loneliness can direct you.
Loneliness can direct your attention in a way that can help you find friends. Researchers studied people who were recently excluded from relationships and found that these people paid closer attention to others who had smiling faces, thereby seeking emotional contact and attempting to find others who are accepting (DeWall, Maner, & Rouby, 2009). The researchers concluded that people who feel the threat of social exclusion are highly motivated to look for sources of acceptance, and their perceptions are in gear to find a friendly face. Even so, there are other actions you can take that will help you to connect with others. Self-disclosure, taking risks socially, being assertive, and being responsive to others are useful strategies to defeat loneliness (Davis & Franzoi, 1986). Since loneliness can lead to self-absorption and a high sensitivity where you look to others for positive affirmation, it is important to remain mindful of the needs of others in social interactions, as suggested by researchers Mark Davis and Stephan Franzoi (1986), who studied adolescent loneliness and self-disclosure. These researchers suggest that talking about yourself and listening to another person’s response to what you’ve said can help to reduce feelings of loneliness.
4. Guilt helps you to maintain your relationships.
Guilt is a social and self-conscious emotion that creates intense discomfort if your behavior—intentionally or unintentionally—hurts another person physically or emotionally. A positive side of guilt is that it motivates you to correct or repair whatever it was that led you to experience guilt in the first place. Part of the motivation you will have to correct the situation is to relieve how guilt makes you feel and to restore the relationship you have with the other person.
Guilt alerts you to not behave in a way that might breech a social bond or a relationship in general. It is a social emotion because it informs you to have concern for others and to consider the other person’s point of view. Going against what you consider to be the “right” behavior may trigger the emotion of guilt. Similarly, if you do something that leads you to evaluate your behavior as a failure, you will likely focus with regret and guilt on the actions that led you to fail (Lewis, 2008).
Guilt is often confused with shame. Where guilt is an emotion you might experience as a result of a wrongdoing about which you might feel remorseful and wish to make amends, with shame the wrongdoing is not separate from the self. So, in general, when shame is triggered, you feel bad about not just what you’ve done, but who you are—your whole self.
5. Shame can be hidden in a put-down.
In order to escape shame’s self-diminishing effects, a person might instead denigrate others or express contempt toward them. Thus a person might attempt to bolster his own view of himself by finding flaws in others so that they become the ones who are shameful. This is certainly true in the behavior of people who act like bullies. People who bully and tease can easily figure out what makes others ashamed, and they are highly skilled at triggering the emotion of shame in their peers. Commonly, people believe that those who bully do so because they have low self-esteem. Instead, researchers have found that people who behave like bullies have high self-esteem, and that they are very shame-prone— fearing their failures or shortcomings will be exposed (Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge, & Olthof, 2008). Hubristic pride—an overly self-confident attitude that is related to being proud of who you are in an arrogant or egotistical sense— keeps a bully’s self-esteem high and hides a proneness to experience shame. Since a bully does not have low self-esteem you don’t have to empathize with them but, instead, you do need to protect yourself.
For more information about my book for young adults, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website: http://www.marylamia.com