Monday, 24 January 2011

Other people may experience more misery than you realise

You are not alone ...
Have you ever had the feeling that everyone else seems so sorted, so at ease? You look about you and see friends chatting over lunch, people laughing on their mobiles, others escaping contentedly through novels or newspapers. According to Alexander Jordan and colleagues, most of us have such a tendency to underestimate other people's experience of negative emotion. In turn the researchers think this skewed perception perpetuates a collective delusion in which we all strive to present an unrealistically happy front because we think that's the norm.

Jordan's team began their investigation by asking 63 undergrads to describe recent negative and positive emotional experiences they'd had. As expected, the negative examples (e.g. had an argument; was rejected by a boy/girl), more than the positive examples (e.g. attended a fun party; had a great meal), tended to occur in private and to provoke emotions that the students had attempted to suppress.

The most frequently cited of these experiences were then put to a separate set of 80 students whose task was to say how many times in the last two weeks they had lived through something similar, and to estimate how often their peers had. The important finding here was that the students consistently underestimated their peers' experience of negative events (by an average of 17 per cent) whilst slightly over-estimating their peers' experience of positive situations (by 5.6 per cent).

What about close friends - surely we have a more accurate sense of their emotional lives? A third study was based on emotional weekly blogs kept by over 200 students, which they used to rate their experience of various positive and negative emotions over the course of a term. Each blog student then nominated a close friend or romantic partner who had to estimate the range of emotions the blogger had experienced that term. Consistent with the study's main message, close friends and partners tended to underestimate the bloggers' experiences of negative emotions and to overestimate their experiences of positive emotions. A deeper analysis of the data suggested the underestimation of negative emotion was partly mediated by the bloggers' deliberate suppression of their negative emotions.

A final study showed that students with a greater tendency to underestimate their peers' negative emotions also tended to feel more lonely, less satisfied with life and to ruminate more, thus suggesting that underestimating others' misery could be harmful to our own well-being. Of course the causal direction could run the other way (i.e. being lonely and discontented could predispose us to think everyone else is happier than they are), or both ways. The researchers acknowledged more research is needed to test this.

Assuming the present results can be replicated, an enduring mystery is why we continue to underestimate other people's misery whilst knowing full well that most of our own negative experiences happen in private, and that we frequently put on a brave, happy face when socialising. Why don't we reason that other people do the same? Jordan and his colleagues think this is probably part of an established phenomenon in psychology - 'the fundamental attribution error' - in which people downplay the role of the situation when assessing other people's behaviour compared with their own.

A fascinating implication of this research is that it could help explain the popularity of tragic art, be that in drama, music or books. 'In fictional tragedy, people are given the opportunity to witness "the terrible things in life" that are ordinarily "played out behind the scenes",' the researchers said (quoting Checkhov), 'which may help to depathologise people's own negative emotional experiences.'

ResearchBlogging.orgJordan, A., Monin, B., Dweck, C., Lovett, B., John, O., and Gross, J. (2010). Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others' Negative Emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (1), 120-135 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210390822

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Carolyn Thomas said...

" could help explain the popularity of tragic art, be that in drama, music or books.."

Well, that explains why people watch Jerry Springer, I guess. Makes us feel so much more "normal"!

Pasting on an "unrealistically happy front" at all times is an occupational hazard in many occupations, including the field of public relations where I've worked for 35+ years.

In that role, it really doesn't matter if you have a migraine or a broken heart, when it comes time to do that media interview or run that press conference or deliver that after-dinner speech at the Rotary Club, you paste on your little happy face and go tap-dancing out to face the world. You can fall apart later, of course, as long as you don't upset others around you!

And because all of your PR colleagues are tap-dancing along, too, it merely reinforces the myth that HAPPY is how we all feel, all the time.

My own observation: most women (not just those working in PR) are particularly socialized to paste on that happy face, no matter what. We don't want to make a fuss or rock the boat.

This can be a downright dangerous trait, however, as we see with women and heart disease. Research out of Oregon Health & Science University, published in The American Journal of Critical Care, actually identifies six 'treatment-seeking delay' behaviours among women even in mid-heart attack - most based on reluctance to come forward to seek help because we don't want to be embarrassed by making a fuss over nothing. More at: "Knowing & Going: Act Fast When Heart Attack Symptoms Hit" at HEART SISTERS:

CitizenWhy said...

Interesting. The only time I am miserable is when I am with people too long. At this stage of life. There were stages where I lived in a cultural context where talking about ideas, literature, the arts and science in a non-rancorous way was a form of recreation (and not everyone had a college degree). Of course many were sad and suffering (but not miserable) but this recreation was a distraction from those low spirits.

In my own life I have been guided by an old saying to the effect, "To be born Irish is to be born to have your heart broken, but why would that interfere with the joy of life?"

I have always been hypersensitive to the unhappiness of others, even as a child, even with strangers. Yet I can honestly say that when alone I am serene and content but also intellectually stimulated by what I am doing. I never complain to others, and can always see how I contributed ti my losses and setbacks. When I take a look at my own faults, It is not difficult for me to forgive and forge with others. But the habit of constantly going over how miserable and bored you are is a cultural artifact that I cannot take (except in some truly sad cases, where I listen for hours a week).

When I was a child I once said "I'm bored at" the dinner table. My parents stopped what they were doing, stared at me for what seemed like 10 minutes, and then my mother said, "Leave the table. Bored people are boring company. You can come back when you are no longer bored. Otherwise your company is not appreciated." I returned in about 5 minutes and never again said "I'm bored." And I haven't been. Restless, yes, but not bored.

CitizenWhy said...

One addition. When I worked people would tell me how much I loved my job. Actually, I didn't but I considered most work unrewarding except for doing it with a crafted excellence. Then the task did not matter. It was absorbing and the striving to do it well was stimulating. So i could cheerfully put up with a job I did not particularly like but I was good at. I could never work in PR (I was offered jobs) because I would not want to have to deceive people (at times) or promote consumerist values.

I have never been unaware of my negative emotions, and I accept them as they are, including the fact that I may have been badly treated. But I do not indulge them or nurse them. I do sometimes open myself fully to these negative emotions (not at the expense of others) because the experience is invigorating and somehow cleansing. Plus I have wonderful dream cycles lasting for years, and they are endlessly intriguing and satisfying. As a result I consider myself rather blessed, despite my lack of monetary ambition, even when troubled. I could never warm up to the God thing but having a spiritual life of sorts does make life enjoyable, with no need to put on a fake face.

Anonymous said...

I could take this research more seriously had students not been used as subjects in the study. Comments were good.

Andrew Barley said...

As a psychotherapist working at a University the findings of this study run true. Not least one of the most positive experiences for students attending the Confidence Course we run is that students usually discover that 'other students suffer as I do and often think as I do'. As Omar Rivabella quoted in her book "May our private pains make us common."

Be Happy!! said...

If this research is true then I think too many people take themselves far too seriously. If these people dwell on how miserable they are then that is exactly how they will feel. I find it much better to just get up in the morning and expect that things will be good - this comes of growing up with a parent who was all 'doom and gloom' and 'woe is me' and not wanting to be the same. I have made a deliberate decision to enjoy life and focus on what makes me happy, and believe me, it works. All those miseries should lighten up!!

Carolyn Thomas said...


"Leave the table. Bored people are boring company. You can come back when you are no longer bored. Otherwise your company is not appreciated."

I LOVE that response, including the 10-minute stare that came before it!

Wish I had thought of that one when my own kidlets pulled the "i'm bored' stunt.... :-)

Jennifer said...

I think one thing that should probably be taken into account with this study was the population - undergraduate students. I know (for me at least) academic environments made me feel especially "vulnerable" - they thrive off of parties, cliques, classes, and relationships. It's easy in a college setting to be especially challenged by the thriving social community around you, since you're undoubtedly also working through handling the pressures that come from a rigorous academic program, learning to live on your own, and figuring out who/what you want to be in life.

I think in many ways college often made me feel like I was "the only one" that felt down, but by the end of it I had learned we all went through those same experiences together.

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