Ross Buck, Ph.D.

Ross Buck Ph.D.

Spontaneous Emotion

Social biofeedback and learning about emotional experience

The social learning associated with emotion requires emotional communication.

Posted Jun 01, 2010


In this way, children learn to label and understand their subjectively experienced feelings and desires largely through the feedback from others responding to their expressive display behaviors. This is termed social biofeedback because, like biofeedback, the behavior of the other provides the child with information about a bodily process that is otherwise inaccessible to the child. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that persons can learn to control physiological functions such as blood pressure and heart rate if they are given feedback via a visible monitor. The social biofeedback process is illustrated in the accompanying figure.


Social biofeedback is a constantly occurring process, not limited to strongly emotional situations. We constantly have access to the experience of feelings and desires, even though we may pay focal attention to these only when they are relatively strong. For example, we constantly have access to the feel of our shoes on our feet, and we can easily turn attention to how our shoes feel to us, but we seldom do so unless we are directed to (or have a pebble in our shoe). Similarly, we can always attend to the state of our desires: how hungry and thirsty we are, how cold or warm, how sexy. And, we can always attend to the state of certain feelings: how happy, sad, afraid, angry we are, for example. The subjective experience of these "raw" feelings and desires is always accessible, but we rarely spontaneously attend to them unless we are "feeling emotional." However, even though we may be unaware of them on a conscious level, these emotional states are present, like a pilot light, and furthermore they are spontaneously displayed through our body language. We constantly broadcast even feelings and desires that may not necessarily be consciously felt.


We can see examples of this in cases of cross-cultural miscommunication, in which two actors follow the rules of their own culture but unintentionally break the rules of the culture of their interaction partner. The late Michael Argyle of Oxford University used an example of a conversation between an Englishman and an Arab, in which the Arab steps forward into the personal space of the Englishman, and the Englishman steps back in response. The pair may unconsciously cross the room. And, each may come away from the interaction with negative feelings about the other, the Englishman regarding the Arab as pushy and intrusive, and the Arab regarding the Englishman as cold and standoffish. Each is responding to the social biofeedback received from the other as if the other were a member of his own culture. As the Arab moves into a comfortable speaking distance, he receives feedback that in his culture would suggest "I don't like you," and similarly the Englishman moves into a comfortable speaking distance, he receives feedback that in his culture would suggest intrusion and threat. Learning, understanding, and experiencing the nonverbal customs of a culture are a critical aspect of developing cultural sensitivity.


The study of such nonverbal communication has been greatly enhanced by the invention of inexpensive video technology that allows body language, including micromomentary facial expressions, to be recorded and analyzed. For example, through the research of Nalani Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, we know that brief "thin slices" of display behavior are perceived by observers and that resulting judgments can be very accurate. The responses of the observer to such judgments can themselves be expressed as social biofeedback to the responder. Patterns of emotional communication in such interactions can lead to patterns of emotional education and competence that are unique to the particular personal relationship of a given responder and observer, and a basis of emotional intimacy.