Friday, 19 June 2015

Why do we sometimes like getting sad together?

We spend most of our lives trying to be as happy as possible, but a team of researchers in Israel has explored how we sometimes appear to find, if not pleasure exactly, at least a certain satisfaction in sharing moments of sadness with others.

To investigate this phenomenon, Roni Porat and her team focused on Jewish-Israeli people's expectations around Israeli National Memorial Day. The day is used to commemorate Israeli soldiers who died in service as well as civilians killed by terrorism.

Based on surveys of Jewish-Israeli undergrads, the researchers found that people who were more motivated to belong (they agreed with statements like "It is important for me to feel a part of the Israeli society"), also tended to say they wanted to feel sad on Memorial Day, and they expected this sadness to make them feel closer to their country.

Porat's team followed this up by deliberately prompting the need to belong in Jewish-Israeli participants recruited online. The researchers did this by asking the participants to look at pairs of photos of faces and to indicate in each case which face belonged to a Jewish-Israeli and which to a Palestinian; this was followed by fixed feedback so that the participants thought they'd failed to identify members of their own ethnic group. Compared to control participants, those made to feel inadequate had raised hopes for feeling sad (but not other emotions) on Memorial Day.

It was a similar story for participants who were prompted to want to belong by having them read about the basic human need for feeling part of a larger social group. After reading such arguments, participants had raised wishes for feeling sad on Memorial Day.

Porat and her colleagues said this is the first time that anyone has studied how the need to belong shapes people's preferences for the emotions they want to feel. The new results extend past research that's shown how people deliberately influence their own emotions for individual (rather than social) reasons – for example, fostering anger in themselves as an aid to aggression.

It remains to be seen how far the results will generalise beyond the specific contexts of this study. If they do, real-world applications might follow. For example, as with sadness, it's plausible that people sometimes seek out group anger as a way to feel greater belonging with their national or religious group. By helping people feel a greater sense of belonging in other ways, the researchers said, it might be possible to reduce the appeal of group anger thereby helping reduce hostility between different social groups.

Porat, R., Halperin, E., Mannheim, I., & Tamir, M. (2015). Together we cry: Social motives and preferences for group-based sadness. Cognition and Emotion, (ahead-of-print), 1-14.

--further reading--
Why do people like listening to sad music when they're feeling down?
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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