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Emotions in the Social World

Why we often don’t feel the way we look.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Our responses to one another are essentially emotional. Our emotions are automatic responses to the emotional states of others, which we infer from their appearance, smell, ideas, beliefs, and behavior. The inferred emotional-motivational states of others, in relation to our own perceived ability to cope, tell us when to approach, avoid, or attack.

Emotional Display

Long before the development of sophisticated language, humans used emotions to communicate and as a social alarm system. We sensed in one another important messages like:

  • “The sabertooth tigers are coming!”
  • “The elk are leaving!”

Each emotion retains primitive non-verbal display characteristics that inform the world that the emotion is occurring. These include facial expressions (smiles, frowns, glares), vocalizations (cooing, moaning, sobbing, screaming, roaring), changes in posture and muscle tone (slumping, tensing, imminent springing, or fleeing), and various expressive behaviors such as stomping feet, beating one’s breast, and pulling one’s hair.


With the development of sophisticated language and thinking, the communication need for display waned, and so did our tolerance of it. Similarly, as developing language skills and emerging independence reduce children's need to broadcast their wants and fears, they face increasing adult rebuke, implicit and otherwise, for emotional display. The uninhibited display of emotions is rare in people older than three.

Most cultures tolerate raw emotional displays by adults only under clearly defined circumstances of ceremony or extremity. The display of anguish, for example, includes weeping, wailing, and flailing, with a sharply down-turned mouth forming the ancient mask of tragedy. A shame display includes slumped head (neck muscles weaken making eye contact difficult), flushed face, and constricted muscles, as the exposed self contorts to the smallest space possible. (The root of the word means to cover or hide.) The display of anger includes bulging, dilated eyes, tightened jaw, exposed teeth, tense, swollen muscles, inflated body posture, and either deepened or shrieking voice.

When shame and fear of consequences are associated with the experience of the emotion itself, more complicated problems of living develop. Joy causes shame, love smacks of fear, sex disgusts us, or sadness depresses us.


Cooperative behavior has contributed to the survival of humankind more than any other quality. Shared emotional response is the engine of cooperation, and thus emotions remain highly contagious—more so than any virus. Happy people tend to make us happy, caring people make us care, interested people attract our interest, anxious people make us worry, anger in others irritates us, and sporting events that lack excited spectators bore us. In the absence of a common enemy that necessitates heightened cooperation, we avoid those who carry “a chip on their shoulder,” “bring us down,” or “overwhelm us.”

The negative bias of emotions operates with a heavy hand on contagion. For every person to whom we attune fear and anger, we gain extra eyes, ears, legs, muscles, and brains to meet the challenges of the world. Witnessing the fear or distress of another causes us to suffer with them: Resentment and subtle hostility spread workstation by workstation throughout the office or factory. Aggressive driving passes car by car on the highway.

Contagion also accounts for “group think,” which makes people act collectively even against their individual, better judgment. It gives us constantly changing fashions, cultural fads, and political correctness. It produces solidarity parades, protest marches and, on the uglier side, “mob justice,” public lynching, riots, and looting.

Absent skill in emotion regulation, we're likely to take on the emotions of others, which undermines the stability, coherence, and individuality of the self. We become gullible, susceptible to abuse, and alienated from a deeper sense of self.

The principle of reciprocity is related to the law of contagion. Allowing for differences of inhibition and temperament, we're likely to get back the same emotion we put out. Not surprisingly, the negative bias of emotions influences reciprocity. Positive emotions are reciprocated roughly 70 percent of the time but negative emotions nearly 100 percent of the time.

Privacy: We're Not How We Appear

To maintain a level of privacy in the social world, humans develop ways of hiding emotions. This habit begins in early childhood when children sense that different emotional displays elicit different behaviors from their caretakers. Largely unconscious endeavors to protect the inner self, hiding habits make emotions look surprisingly different on the outside than they feel on the inside. Embarrassed people can seem unfriendly, even conceited. Hurt people often seem aloof or as though they're rejecting others. Anxious people can appear controlling and insensitive. Scared and depressed people might whine and complain. Angry people appear menacing or unpleasant. Resentful individuals seem petty and vindictive. In these cases, the appearance never coincides with the internal sense of vulnerability.

This external-internal disconnection leads to heartbreak in romantic relationships, although it's commonly (and inaccurately) attributed to “communication problems.” Emotional distance caused by the law of privacy can make almost any words seem insensitive, hurtful, or offensive, regardless of the word-choice or communication skills employed. Attuned emotions create a sense of intimacy, not verbal agreement about who is to blame for the painful distance between partners.

In non-intimate social interactions, the law of privacy causes countless misunderstandings, misdemeanors, and resentments. If you feel chronically misunderstood by others, check the appearance of your emotional states in a mirror, particularly resentment. You can do so by trying this experiment: Think of something that you makes you resentful and hold the thought as you look in the mirror. You’ll see what the world sees, which is much different from how it feels. Other people see little more than our surface emotions—they rarely notice underlying core hurts, fears, or vulnerabilities.


The experience of intense emotions makes it virtually impossible to read other people's emotions with any accuracy. When our own internal experience is strong, we project it onto others. The extreme example is a paranoid person whose intense anger and fear drive him to project negative emotions on everyone who doesn’t validate his negative thoughts. ("You don't see the Martians in the yard? Then you must be one of them.") The resentful person is likely to project resentment onto others.

Negative projections almost inevitably become self-fulfilling prophesy. We’re likely to resent someone who thinks we’re resentful, suspect someone who feels we’re untrustworthy, and want to criticize someone who thinks we're critical.

Although it's more obvious with negative emotions, the law of projection holds true with positive emotions as well. This is why we so often mistakenly judge the depth of feeling of a new love interest. Putting a lover on a pedestal, or demonizing him or her, are really opposite sides of the same projection coin.

In my next post I’ll discuss principles that govern emotions in personal interactions.