A Surprising Influence on Your Emotions

How do the people around you affect your expression of anger and gratitude?

Posted Jun 24, 2015

Alexis Hatcher/Shutterstock
Source: Alexis Hatcher/Shutterstock

By Alexis Hatcher

What do you and your group of friends have in common? Do you share a love for running, or do you all have the same wry sense of humor? It turns out you may have more in common than you even realize: Over time, research has found, groups can come to shape our emotions.

In a recent study published in the journal Small Group Research, researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium investigated emotional convergence, the process by which people become more emotionally similar over time. Previous research has found that romantic partners become more similar in their emotional responses over the course of a year. The latest study focused more specifically on anger and gratitude, which researchers chose to examine because of their opposing characters and importance to group dynamics.

The experiment included 295 student participants, who were divided into 68 groups of four to six students each for a semester-long project. Each group member completed questionnaires over the span of 13 weeks, reporting how intensely they experienced anger and gratitude when working with their group members, as well as how prevalent and appropriate they perceived these emotions to be within the group. In this way, the researchers were able to assess how a group’s emotional norms affect an individual’s emotions.

Group members’ emotions converged over time, with their reported experiences of anger and gratitude becoming more similar throughout the course of 13 weeks. Researchers found that an individual's emotional experiences at one time predicted the group’s emotional norms at a later time, showing that an individual can alter the group’s norms.

The reverse was also found: Group norms predicted individual group members’ reports, indicating that perceiving certain emotions as desirable and present within a group influences one’s emotional experience.

“You infer from what people do what the norm is, and that in term informs how you can feel,” psychologist Batja Mesquita says. When people in a group express gratitude often, it “becomes more of a norm to be grateful.” But the same holds true for anger. “If other group members are angry, then that tells you that anger is permitted,” she said. “If you see other people angry all the time, it becomes very natural to interpret behavior as blameworthy and calling for aggression.”

When you and your friends hang out, sharing a hobby or a passion that brings you closer together, think about what else you may share. As positivity and negativity circulate, the people you surround yourself with can both drag you down and lift you up.

Alexis Hatcher is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.