The Emotions of Social Interaction

Emotions continually change in tone and intensity during interaction.

Posted Feb 25, 2017

While we are quite sensitive to the negative emotional displays of those with whom we interact, we’re hardly sensitive at all to our own. In fact, we’re prone to self-deception in that regard, confusing the motivation of emotions with conscious goals and intentions. Because habituated emotional responses are dominated by our toddler brain, we're blindly committed to our toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, avoidance:

“You’re critical! I just give useful feedback.”

“You’re stubborn! I’m just firm.”

“You’re wishy-washy! I’m flexible.”

“You’re raging! I’m just upset.”

“You’re vindictive! I’m just standing up for myself.”

Because objective analysis of our own demeanor and behavior in emotional exchanges is so difficult, we need to understand the function of certain emotions in our social interactions, which are likely to exert more influence on what we do than what we think we're doing.

Anger Escalation and Retaliation

Although anger is the most contagious of emotions, it is often an exception to the principle of reciprocity, or our tendency to match the emotional output of others. Instead, anger has a built-in escalation mechanism: Unless shame or fear of consequences inhibits us, we return anger cues from others with increasing intensity, and up the gain of any counter-response. This automatic escalation has survival significance. Anger is for winning, not for ties. We don’t want to hurt the saber-toothed tiger just as much as it hurts us; we want to destroy its capacity to hurt us.    

Escalating anger, with its built-in retaliation motive, accounts for why, despite political rhetoric, the oppressed (both actual and self-perceived) almost never settle for equality, but feel compelled toward dominance, or at least retribution. The notorious “cycle of violence” that infests certain regions of the world (and some communities in the United States) owes to the law of anger escalation and retaliation. Actual or expected reprisals and counter-reprisals can keep the cycle going for generations. 

Value Judgment: You Must Be Moral, While I Avoid Guilt

Most of our emotions represent implicit value judgments. In many ways, such implicit value judgments form the core of our social interactions. Value judgments allow us to predict, and to some degree control, the behavior of others, and the ability to predict and control provides an illusion of safety. Unpredictable behavior raises alarms even when it's basically harmless: Think of your response when someone disrobes in public or speaks too loudly in a restaurant.

Our sense of safety in modern times is influenced less by actual dangers in the environment than by threats to predictability and a sense of control. For instance, soldiers can feel relatively safe during hostilities if they are confident of their combat skills, which allows them to predict and to some extent control threats to their safety. And yet the same soldiers can feel unsafe in peacetime work negotiations, where combat skills are of little utility.

A primary instrument of social control is moral reprobation. We describe failures to sustain pro-social emotions, like compassion and remorse, as “inhumane” and hold deficits of sincerity and trustworthiness in contempt or disgust. Of course, value judgment is greatly influenced by the emotional state of the person making the judgment. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself” is a common cry of people with low self-value, who depend on their presumed moral superiority for a tolerable sense of self. Only the shamed are likely to shame in ordinary social interactions. 

Moral judgments, like all other emotional responses, are primarily reactions to inferred emotional states, rather than observed behavior. We regard emotional states, before and after the fact, as mitigating factors in both morally and legally proscribed behavior. We tend to forgive the penitent for greater offenses than the unrepentant. Studies of discretionary criminal sentencing indicate that murderers who show remorse are punished more or less the same as robbers who come across as feeling entitled to commit their crimes.

The value judgments of emotions concern other people's behavior more than our own. We tend to judge the actions of others in moral terms but our own in terms of utility — what works for us. Similarly, while we’re hypersensitive to unfair treatment, we’re hardly sensitive at all to our own unfairness. The latter takes determined self-reflection. Our judgments of others come easily; objective self-reflection takes focus, energy, and determination, if not a weekend retreat.    

Self-Other Construction: We Become What We Make of Others

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

We tend to suffer personally, if not consciously, the emotional judgments we make of others. When we’re dishonest, we don’t trust others; when we perceive others to be dishonest, we’re apt to be less than forthright ourselves. If we see others as unworthy, we become less worthy of cooperation. If we see them as dull, we lose interest. When we hold others in contempt, we’re contemptuous. Hatred demonizes others at the cost of devaluing the most humane parts of ourselves. A toll of physical and emotional disorders befalls those who fail to sustain trust, enjoyment, compassion, and interest in others.

Negative emotions directed at others is one of the worst things we can do for our health and well-being.

Emotions emerged over a much longer evolutionary history than language. Along the way, they developed considerable complexity that can easily confound social interactions. Those will be the subject of the next post.