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Scientists have sought for thousands of years to answer questions about the nature and purpose of emotions. Psychologists Gerben van Kleef (University of Amsterdam) and Stéphane Côté (University of Toronto) have now released the most comprehensive review article on the social effects of emotions to date. The belief that emotions are inherently social and do not occur inside one person but rather between several persons (an approach that was largely developed at the UvA) is increasingly internationally regarded as the standard. The article was published in Annual Review of Psychology, the most impactful scientific journal for psychologists.

woman shows various emotions with her face

'Emotions play a major part in our personal and professional lives. They shape our social relationships and affect our performance at work and how successful we are in our lives. Therefore, in order to understand how people function, we must understand emotions,' says Gerben van Kleef, professor of Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam's Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, where research on human emotions is part of a long and distinguished tradition.

For a long time emotions were regarded as events taking place inside one individual, and the studies that were conducted tended to focus on how emotions manifested within such individuals. However, since the early 21st century, more and more scientists have realised that emotions are inherently social. After all, people tend to get most emotional when interacting with others, and emotions are regulated by social norms, are expressed in social situations and affect others. Since scientists began to realise that, they have tried harder to understand how the way we express our emotions affects others.

Being able to recognise and regulate expressions of emotion is crucial to social relationships

Together with Professor of Organisational Behaviour Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto, Van Kleef has now published the first analysis of this increasingly influential stream of research on the social effects of emotions. In this analysis, the two psychologists discuss the main theoretical perspectives and document the impact expressions of emotions have on other people's feelings, thoughts and actions, based on the results of empirical research. The authors conclude that all this research points in the same direction: the ability to identify other people's expressions of emotion and to regulate one's own expressions of emotion is crucial to successful social interactions. However, the way in which emotions are interpreted strongly depends on the person and the situation.

Remarkable effects on feelings, thoughts and behaviour

According to Van Kleef and Côté, studies show that expressions of emotion have remarkable effects on other people's feelings, thoughts and behaviour. These effects manifest themselves in different areas of life, ranging from romantic relationships to decision-making in group situations, from customer service to conflict resolution and from leadership to team sports. 'Many studies have shown that emotions spread between people,' the authors state. 'Evidence has also shown that the ability to accurately identify other people's expressions of emotion and the ability to effectively regulate one's own expressions of emotion are crucial to successful social interactions.' Van Kleef and Côté also posit that the impact of expressions of emotion depends on observers’ ability to process information on the situation and how appropriate they think the emotions are within the given context.

Look at the social signals conveyed by emotions

The authors specifically focused on the social consequences of expressions of emotion and on whether certain emotions have a positive or negative effect. It turns out that this differs from person to person and from situation to situation. 'Expressions of emotion are a vital source of information,' explain the authors, 'and whether this information is actually observed and how it is interpreted may differ from one person to the next, and from one situation to the next.'

As a result, certain emotions may have both a positive and a negative effect on behaviour. For example, Van Kleef and Côté say that this is the case for expressions of anger. These may result in desired behavioural reactions, such as collaboration and improved performance, if observers are sufficiently motivated and able to process information accurately and believe the expression of anger is appropriate in that particular situation. Conversely, anger may evoke undesired behaviour such as stubbornness and poor performance if observers are not very motivated to process information accurately and believe the expression of anger is inappropriate.

Positive emotions, too, will elicit different reactions from different people and in different situations. 'People tend to think that positive emotions elicit desired behaviour, while negative emotions elicit undesired behaviour, but there's clearly more to it than that,' explains Van Kleef. 'Positive emotions may very well elicit undesired reactions, while negative emotions may elicit desired reactions. It always depends on how the observer processes the information contained in the emotion and on the extent to which the emotion is considered appropriate.'

Lastly, the researchers found that the functionality of expressions of emotion also depends on how they are used and perceived. 'No matter how tempting it may be to believe that the social effects of emotions are functional, each example of a desired effect comes with an example of an undesired effect,' the authors state. 'In order to understand when emotions are functional or dysfunctional, we must look at the social signals conveyed by emotions and how they fit into the context.'

Publishing details

Gerben A. van Kleef and Stéphane Côté, 2022, The Social Effects of Emotions. Annual Review of Psychology

Want to know more about this?

For questions about this study you can contact Gerben van Kleef. If you would like to learn more about the research conducted at the University of Amsterdam's Psychology department, be sure to have a look at this.

Prof. dr. G.A. (Gerben) van Kleef

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Social Psychology