Wanting to Feel Good, Familiar or Useful?

The appeal of familiar and useful emotions

Posted Jun 30, 2015

Maya Tamir is a psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who studies people's motivation to experience various emotions. Her research shows that people will typically seek out positive feeling emotions, but that this does not occur when people believe that holding a negative emotion helps them achieve a specific goal. For instance, when given a choice between a video that will anger them, or a video that will make them happy, people tend to choose the happy video in normal circumstances. But, if people think they will be confronting someone in a study, they then become more likely to choose to watch the angry video. 

Tamir and colleagues also have research showing that when people read evidence that a specific emotion (positive or negative to feel) has a usage, that they are more likely to then put themselves into situations that induces that emotion. That is, if someone is made to believe (or just believes naturally) that anxiety is beneficial, they will then seek out anxiety, and in turn, feel it more frequently.

But what about familar emotions? Do people like, and seek out, familiar emotions more than unfamilar ones? Or, do people merely seek out emotions that feel good?

Tamir asked hundreds of participants how frequently they experience anger, anxiety and cheerfulness (as a measure of familarity). She then asked them various questions about how much they like these emotions (how good they feel), and how much they want to feel these emotions (how frequently they would choose the emotions).

The results indicated that people rated familar emotions as more liked and sought out than unfamilar emotions. Interestingly, this was the case whether the emotions were positively valenced (cheer) or negatively (anger, anxiety).

This has a few potentially interesting implications. First, it suggests that there is a motivation that could contribute to people wanting to feel badly (i.e., that it is familar). Second, it suggests that there might be a conflict (for some people) between wanting to feel good about yourself and wanting to feel like yourself.

Indeed, there is a lot of research showing that when people have low self-esteem in a specific area, that they are more likely to choose a partner (in a relationship or a task in a lab study) that rates them poorly on that specific area. The idea is that people need "self-verified" (for people to see them as they see themselves) and also need to feel good (for people to see them favorably). And sometimes, these two motivations conflict.

Thus, an answer to why people might want to experience negative emotions is that the emotions might feel familiar, or might be perceived as useful. The result is that there are motivations that conflict with wanting to simply feel good.

1 - It is worth noting that this research was not conducted on samples of people with various mood disorders (depression, anxiety, etc). It is possible that the results would be quite different. So some caution is needed when trying to generalize these findings to those populations, as Tamir herself notes.

2- Also, there are also loads of neural/biological/genetic factors that influence emotional experiences (some studies estimate that in non-clinical samples, 50% of happiness is due to genetics, for instance). 

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