Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Influencing others by showing emotion: a new emotional ability?

Many workplaces recognise that besides more cognitive notions of intelligence – our capability to solve problems, use logic, process and judge factual information – they also need Emotional Intelligence (EI): the capability to recognise, make the most of and manage emotion. Now a new theoretical paper makes the case that we should be expanding this concept of EI to include the ability to influence others through emotional displays.

EI currently focuses on spotting, dealing with and making sense of emotions. Can I figure out why I was feeling increasingly uneasy through the meeting? Spot how you are feeling right now? Guess what might cheer you up? Authors Côté and Hideg focus their attention on another feature of emotions: that we display them physically to others in emotion displays. This insight goes back to Darwin, and has since been extensively researched notably by Paul Ekman (whose work is popularised in the TV series Lie to Me) with the field now recognising that the face, voice and touch are all used for this purpose. Emotional displays, even subtle ones, can cause our heart rate to rise, our skin to sweat, and our emotions to swell, often to then be displayed onwards in ripples of emotional contagion, such as when laughter gathers any within earshot.

Côté and Hideg draw attention to the workplace consequences of these displays. Anger at those who have neglected their duties can provoke them to redouble their efforts, guilt displays increase the likelihood of forgiveness, and positive emotions can result in more pro-social behaviour. Clearly there is an advantage to being adept at these displays, and the authors point out at least two ways in which one can be better. One is displaying the right emotion for the situation; considerations include the communication medium, as some emotions, such as anger, are displayed more strongly via the voice than the face (and the reverse can be true). Another is displaying that emotion effectively, facilitated by approaches such as 'deep acting' which tries to change the emotion itself, contrasting surface acting, which just acts on behaviour and can be perceived as inauthentic. (You can decide for yourself what's going on in the photo above.)

Côté and Hideg amass research showing genuine variety in how well people can influence others through displays, for instance the ability of bill collectors to communicate urgency to debtors. They argue that all this evidence suggests a real human capability that shows individual differences, concerns emotions, and can result in better or worse outcomes. On this basis, they call for it to be considered as a new emotional ability within the Emotional Intelligence framework.

In an illuminating section the paper explores how influencing others through emotional displays also relies on another: the intended recipient. They may fail to recognise the display if they come from a different culture with different cues. They may be unmotivated to give their attention to your display, because they don't trust you, because they hold the power in the interaction and are blase about how you may feel, or because they don’t see the value in trying to understand the situation (what the authors refer to as epistemic motivation). There is evidence for each of these factors moderating the effect of emotion displays.

We all know that people are influenced by the emotional reactions of those around them. But it’s valuable to recognise the ways this does and doesn’t work, know its genuine workplace consequences, and be aware that this may be better treated as an ability, rather than an unaccountable influence in the workplace. This paper does a fine job of this, drawing together a wealth of evidence, and because this research is clear, readable, and released in the freely-accessible Organizational Psychology Review, I'd encourage having a look yourself.

ResearchBlogging.org Côté, S., & Hideg, I. (2011). The ability to influence others via emotion displays: A new dimension of emotional intelligence Organizational Psychology Review, 1 (1), 53-71 DOI: 10.1177/2041386610379257


  1. I believe emotions are strong and contagious, that's why when you influence with bad emotions, you need counseling. These emotions spread through everyone, that's why we need to spread only the positive ones.

  2. Hayley Nagle, you are correct. "Emotions are strong and contagious, and we have to live with it everyday. I believe anyone who carries those 'bad emotions' need immediate help because they won't survive their lives HATING on everything or everyone. Counseling is a must.

  3. True. In interviews with applicants, it's easy to see who can control emotions. If one can suppress his negative emotions and finish the interview without showing signs of anger or bias, he's probably the kind of person who can easily adapt to the new office environment, and make new friends. Of course, it still takes a couple of tests to see whether a person is fit for the job or not.

  4. You know, a few years back I had a little slip, I let my emotions take over me and it was during one of the most depressing moment of my life. I got out of control until someone intervened. I was past that stage and learned a lot from that experience. Now, I do attend some meditation, yoga and spiritual classes every time I feel anxiety because it helps me relax.

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