For most people, reading the emotions of those around you is second nature: Your spouse is grumpy. Your co-worker is anxious. Your child is happy. But new work from researchers at Princeton University and Harvard University shows that people are also quite skilled at predicting others’ future emotions, thanks to a powerful mental model of emotional transitions.
“It’s one thing for me to know that your face right now is telling me that you’re happy, but that doesn’t give me any information about what I should do to prepare for whatever state you’re going to be in next,” said Diana Tamir, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton and one of the researchers. “We found that people have really reliable, intuitive models for how people transition from one emotional state to the next.”
The research is detailed in an article titled “Mental models accurately predict emotion transitions,” published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Tamir and Mark Thornton, who did the work as Ph.D. student at Harvard and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton. Thornton is also a member of Princeton’s Class of 2011.
For a social species like humans, the ability to predict the future emotions of those around us pays off all the time, whether you’re trying to comfort a loved one, outmaneuver a rival or close a sale. “This ability to see into others’ affective future may be one way by which humans achieve their impressive social abilities,” the researchers wrote.
To determine how likely people are to transition from one emotional state to another, the researchers looked at data from three studies that asked participants to record their current emotional state repeatedly over an extended time period. From that, the researchers estimated the actual rate of transitions between emotional states. Someone who reports feeling gloomy, for example, is much more likely to report next that they are feeling sad than they are to report feeling pleased.
Then, the researchers asked separate study participants to rate the likelihood that one emotion might transition to another.
“Comparing participants’ ratings of transition likelihood to others’ experienced transitions, we found that raters have accurate mental models of emotion transitions,” the researchers wrote. “These models could allow perceivers to predict others’ emotions up to two transitions into the future with above-chance accuracy.”
So, for example, the data on people’s reported emotional transitions showed it to be fairly likely that a person feeling touchy would next feel distressed. Similarly, the study participants rated “distressed” as an emotion likely to follow “feeling touchy.”
The researchers found evidence that the mental model people use to predict emotional transitions is informed by four conceptual dimensions:
- valence, whether an emotion is positive or negative;
- social impact, whether an emotion is intense and social or mild and asocial;
- rationality, whether an emotion is more about cognition or affect; and
- human mind, whether an emotion is purely mental and human-specific, or bodily and shared with animals.
Transitions are more likely to happen between emotions that share the same valence, for example. So, an emotion whose valence is positive, such as “giddy,” is more likely to be followed by another emotion with positive valence, such as “excited,” than an emotion with negative valence, such as “upset.”
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology at Northeastern University who is familiar with the work but wasn’t involved in it, said the research’s “focus on temporal dynamics, in particular, is an important innovation in the study of emotion perception.”
Tamir said the researchers are working to understand why some people are better than others at predicting emotional transitions and how different abilities translate to different levels of success in the world.
The extraordinary variety of human personality can be broken down into the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality traits, namely neuroticism (how moody a person is), extraversion (how enthusiastic a person is), openness (how open-minded a person is), agreeableness (a measure of altruism), and conscientiousness (a measure of self-control).
Many people are hesitant to step out of their regular roles and routines. The idea of putting yourself in a position to potentially fail can be frightening or stressful. But sometimes what’s keeping you in one spot may not be your own self-interest. In fact, other people’s wishes and the feeling that you “should” stay put may be tamping down your own preferences. What’s holding you back may be compliance, not comfort.
We’ve seen this many times. People have pursued one path in life — influenced by their culture, parents, or sense of what they “should” pursue — that leads them to invest time, money, and skill development in a path that is very hard to escape from.
For example, consider the case of Carla. From a young age Carla had an interest in the arts. As a child, she loved to read and write, and as an adult she was a voracious reader and loved contemporary art, theater, and dance. However, her parents told her that she should be taking on a more conventional job, so she considered these interests merely a hobby, something she’d get to if she had the time. In the meantime, she pursued a career in law.
She didn’t hate law, but her heart and soul weren’t fully in it. At some point, despite her many years of schooling and practicing law, she decided to take the leap and try something else: becoming an underground arts entrepreneur.
Her transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it was accompanied by a cocktail of emotion. She felt relief, but also fear, dread, and a bit of guilt. She knew law — it was comfortable, predictable, and, frankly, she was good at it. But the arts were her passion, and over time, as she transitioned, tentatively at first and then head-on into the underground arts scene, her passion took off. Today she’s happy, fulfilled, deeply creative, and living the life she feels she was meant to lead. That feeling of liberation and self-actualization has only grown, six years later, as she continues to catalyze the underground arts scene.
This sense of freedom doesn’t restrict itself to career moves: I have found a similar phenomenon with people I’ve helped adapt to behaviors across cultures, especially those who felt that in their native culture they had to stifle their personality and behavior to conform to the local cultural norms. When they were free from these norms and in a different culture, they could finally be themselves. I see this with some MBA students who weren’t allowed to speak up in class in their native countries because no one wants to contradict the professor — and it’s simply not part of the culture. But in U.S. classrooms they can unleash that side of themselves. They can raise their hands, speak their minds, question authority, and, most of all, be themselves.
Every instance of stepping outside your comfort zone won’t lead to an incredible sense of discovery and liberation. But it may happen when you realize that what you thought was your comfort zone is, in actuality, your compliant zone — where you’ve learned to behave in ways that you were expected to behave, perhaps by your parents, or your extended family, or your culture. Over time, through repetition, and by dutifully fulfilling others’ expectations, you internalize these behaviors as your own, even if they don’t actually reflect who you are.
How can you tell when your comfort zone may actually be your compliant zone?
- Pinpoint your area of focus. Identify one specific thing to question, whether it’s something you’re unhappy with or something you want to grow or develop.
- Take a quick inventory of your personal values and passions. What are you passionate about? What drives you? What would you love to do, and what do you care about doing if there was nothing getting in your way?
- Compare your passions to the activity you’re examining. Can you see your own values and driving passions in this activity somewhere? If you can, it’s probably not compliance — or at least not fully. But if you struggle to find yourself anywhere, you may be in the compliant zone, and it might be time to reassess and consider whether a change is in order.
Of course, there are certain tasks we simply have to do in our jobs and lives in order to fulfill our regular roles and responsibilities. We might not want to network or make company-wide presentations, but we know we have to. We might not want to work all weekend, but we’re compelled by the boss’s orders. On a granular level, compliance is a core element of the working world. But when compliance systematically overrides your personal passion, that’s when it’s critical to examine on a broader level whether you’re living the life you want to lead.
Our habits and routines are hard to break for a reason: They ground us and bring predictability to our lives. But avoiding new situations can hold you back. Stepping outside your comfort zone can help you build new skills and gain confidence. And by identifying and escaping your compliant zone, you can discover your “true” self — the part of you that reflects your authentic passions and interests and leads to a more fulfilling life.
Reactance is the desire to do the opposite of what is requested or advised, due to a perceived threat to freedom of choice. Reactance can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended, and also increases resistance to persuasion. People using reverse psychology are playing on at least an informal awareness of reactance, attempting to influence someone to choose the opposite of what they request.
Psychological reactance occurs in response to threats to perceived behavioral freedoms. An example of such behavior can be observed when an individual engages in a prohibited activity in order to deliberately taunt the authority who prohibits it, regardless of the utility or disutility that the activity confers. An individual’s freedom to select when and how to conduct their behavior, and the level to which they are aware of the relevant freedom—and are able to determine behaviors necessary to satisfy that freedom—affect the generation of psychological reactance. It is assumed that if a person’s behavioral freedom is threatened or reduced, they become motivationally aroused. The fear of loss of further freedoms can spark this arousal and motivate them to re-establish the threatened freedom. Because this motivational state is a result of the perceived reduction of one’s freedom of action, it is considered a counterforce, and thus is called psychological reactance.
Freedom is not an abstract consideration, but rather a feeling associated with real behaviors, including actions, emotions, and attitudes. Reactance also explains denial as it is encountered in addiction counselling. Research demonstrates that a counselor can drive resistance levels up and down dramatically according to his or her personal counseling style. Use of a respectful reflective approach described in motivational interviewing and applied as motivation enhancement therapy, rather than by argumentation, the accusation of being in denial, and direct confrontations, lead to the motivation to change and avoid the reactance elicited by strong direct confrontation.
Instead of constant acceleration, leadership demands periods of restraint and consideration. Leaders must regularly turn off the noise and ask themselves what they stand for and what kind of an example they want to set.
Self-reflection is not spending hours contemplating your navel. No! It’s: What are my values, and what am I going to do about it? This is not some intellectual exercise. It’s all about self-improvement, being self-aware, knowing myself, and getting better.
There are three ways that periodic self-reflection can strengthen leadership, as well as some of prompts.
Know Your Priorities—and Where You Fall Short. Anybody in a managerial position has two basic responsibilities: prioritize what must be done, and allocate resources to get those things done efficiently. But how can you possibly prioritize or allocate if you haven’t figured out what really matters? Self-reflection allows us to understand what is important, and focus on what might be done differently.
Baxter was focused on increasing its growth rate. Other firms were making acquisitions right and left, while Baxter was not. So they stepped back, and asked, if we want to grow externally, what are other companies doing that we aren’t? It turned out that the companies that were growing successfully had diverted resources from their core operations to establish large business-development departments. Baxter at the time had a much smaller department. But until taking time to research and reflect on the matter, they didn’t realize we needed a larger team of people who could fully dedicate themselves to this issue.
Of course, after priorities have been defined, it is important for action to follow. To prevent a gulf between word and deed, one writes out his self-reflection each night, creating a record of what he has done and what he says he will do. He also checks continuously with family, friends, and close colleagues to ensure he is holding himself accountable and not living in some fantasy land.
Minimize Surprise. Members of the United States military are excellent role models for self-reflection. They forecast and plan obsessively in order to do one thing—minimize surprise.
If the president of the United States calls and says, ‘I want an aircraft carrier in the Middle East,’ and the aircraft carrier gets there and all of a sudden it gets bombed, the military isn’t saying, ‘Oh, what are we going to do? We got bombed!’ They’ve already thought that that might happen.
Quality, safety, and compliance standards are, of course, essential to minimizing the possibility of disaster. But we were self-reflective enough to realize that it could happen. So, when it did happen, we weren’t confused.
And self-reflection need not mitigate only out-of-the-blue disasters; it also prepares leaders for more routine, but no less insidious disappointments. A head of a publicly traded company, for instance, knew that not every quarterly performance was going to be positive. To assume that performance is going to go up every single quarter—that’s not really logical. And by the way, when the drop does happen, what are you going to do about it?
Preparation has the added benefit of reducing anxiety about the possibility of things going wrong. The reason many, many people have trouble balancing their lives is that they have not been self-reflective enough to figure out what they’re trying to balance.
Build Stronger Teams. Self-reflection’s effects go beyond the self. If I don’t know myself, is it possible for me to lead myself? I doubt that. If I can’t lead myself, how could I possibly lead other people?
Strong leaders not only practice self-reflection themselves; they also encourage their teams to do so. I have a responsibility to develop every single person I touch. And of course, a self-reflective team is a team that has its priorities straight and arrives prepared to deal with any setbacks.
So if one of his employees is bouncing around like a lunatic, he meets with him to establish the value of settling down for a moment, taking a breath, and considering what’s important. If I’m going to help you develop as a leader, one of the first things I’m going to try to do is to help you understand the tremendous benefit of self-reflection.
Next Steps. How can leaders get themselves, and their teams, practicing self-reflection? How a person reflects, he says, is a personal matter. But leaders—and leaders-to-be—carve self-reflection into their daily routine. It takes only 15 minutes, and we all have 15 minutes somewhere in the day: during a commute, during exercise, during a cup of coffee. In fact, as an added benefit, reflection can lead to finding more time for what is important.
The reason many, many people have trouble balancing their lives is that they have not been self-reflective enough to figure out what they’re trying to balance. You might say, ‘Boy, my spouse is really, really important to me.’ But do you spend time with her? Or do you assume you’re too busy? Is spending time with her a priority or isn’t it a priority?
Still convinced you cannot fit self-reflection on your calendar? That’s often an excuse to avoid an uncomfortable exercise. There could be a pretty big difference between what you say is important and what you’re actually doing, and you may not want to confront that.
There’s one debilitating behavior that most of us fall victim to with great regularity: listening to critical voices in our heads. Whether they originate from external criticism or our own fears and doubts, these negative voices tell us we’re not good enough, kind enough, or productive enough. Echoing negative thoughts inside our heads increases our chances of depression, isolates us from others, and inhibits us from pursuing goals.
We need five positive voices for every one negative voice we carry around in our heads to feel balanced, happy, and productive. Here’s how to move past negativity and into productivity:
- Look for the positive. We often assume that the biggest potential for improvement lies in fixing our weaknesses, but amplifying our strengths is also important. People who use their strengths daily are six times more engaged, and strengths-focused teams are 12.5% more productive. Instead of only asking about what you did wrong, request positive feedback too. Ask, “What did you like about my presentation?” or “What worked well for you in this pitch deck?”
- Hear the positive. Take it in. Many of my clients will ask for positive feedback but only start taking notes once the negative feedback starts. Jot down the positive feedback so you know what to replicate. It also cues the feedback giver that positive feedback is just as important to you as areas to improve.
- Dig in to understand the positive. Allow yourself to lean in and explore praise. Think of a compliment someone paid you recently. What did you do in response? Did you make excuses? “I was lucky.” Did you minimize it? “I had a lot of help.” At best, you probably said, “Thank you.” In contrast, what do you do when someone makes negative comments? You ask questions and even request examples. Turn a compliment into an opportunity to gather concrete examples of how you’re effective. For example: “I’m so glad my workshop was helpful to you. What about it was helpful? What did I do that helped you learn?”
- Believe the positive, and act as if it were true. Even if you somehow work yourself up to following the three steps above, you might still have a hard time believing what people say about you. Maybe you wonder about the feedback giver’s ulterior motive. Instead, believe what they’re saying might actually be true. Find the people who have your best interests at heart and who you can count on to tell you the truth. When you hear their voices over and over again, you’re more likely to see the positive themes and internalize them.
Make it a daily practice to shoot for a five-to-one ratio. You may not keep a precise count of how many positive and negative voices you’re allowing inside your head each day, but once you start to stockpile positive comments, you’ll notice a difference in your energy level and output. With a full tank, it’s easier to pass on the goodwill and be a positive voice for others.