Cutting-Edge Leadership

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4 Reasons Why Others' Negative Emotions Push Our Buttons

Why are we prone to appease? Why do we fear anger?

When a friend or loved one gets upset or angry, why does that spur us to want to help them or to calm them down? While threats often cause us to retaliate, why might others’ anger compel us to back down and appease? Why are we so reactive to negative emotions? There are some important psychological reasons:

1. Resistance to Negative Emotions. For the most part, negative emotions are experienced as an undesirable state. We dislike negative arousal, and we try to eliminate negative feelings. When we see others angry or in pain, our tendency is to want to help eliminate their negative emotional state.

2. Emotional Contagion. This is the process whereby emotions are nonverbally communicated and “shared” by others. Through the emotional contagion process, we may actually feel others’ pain and negative emotions. As a result, we ourselves begin to experience their negative emotion, and we seek to avoid the vicarious unpleasant arousal.

3. Appeasement. Recent research suggests that when in negotiations and the other person displays an angry face, we are more likely to agree to their (reasonable) demands. That is why we often give in to a child who is throwing a tantrum or a friend or spouse on an angry tirade. We simply want the negative emotions to stop, and don’t want negative emotions to escalate.

4. Emotional Labor. What happens when we try to cover felt negative emotions (anger, pain) by putting on a happy face? Think of the customer service rep who is trying to provide service with a smile to an irate and abusive customer. Research on the construct of “emotional labor” suggests that we get a “triple-whammy” of experiencing our internal negative affect, experiencing the other person’s negativity, and, over time, the emotional labor can cause us stress and burnout.

 References and Further Reading

Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo & Richard L. Rapson (1994).  Emotional contagion. NY: Cambridge University Press.

 Alicia Grandey, James Diefendorrf & Deborah Rupp (2012).  Emotional labor in the 21st Century.  NY: Taylor & Francis.

Follow me on Twitter:!/ronriggio


Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.


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