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Social norms dictate when we can express our emotions and to whom. These norms are much stronger for negative emotions than for positive ones. Does this mean that we can always express positive emotions, and to everyone? No, state psychology researchers from the University of Amsterdam who mapped expression norms for eight positive emotions. Sensory pleasure, feeling moved and triumph have relatively restrictive social norms governing their expressions. These findings are now published in ‘Emotion.’

a woman expressing triumph

Our emotions play a key role in shaping our behaviour. How we feel influences the way we see ourselves, the choices we make, and how we react to other people. For long, research focused on the role of negative emotions, but more recently attention has turned to positive emotions. Not only do positive emotions have a long-lasting impact on our lives, they are also socially beneficial and help us improve our relationships with others. But does this necessarily mean that all good feelings can always be shown to everyone?

Mapping out expression norms for eight positive emotions

Not all positive emotions send out the same message to others. Expressing your thankfulness for something will most likely give a different signal than when screaming in victory because you won a game. Based on this premise, psychology researchers from the University of Amsterdam conducted empirical studies to find out how social norms influence the expression of positive emotions.

They mapped out expression norms for eight positive emotions (gratitude, admiration, interest, relief, amusement, feeling moved, sensory pleasure, and triumph) in five countries: the Netherlands, US, Germany, Australia and the UK. People were asked how appropriate others in their culture would find the display of such positive emotions to be, in specific contexts: a private space versus a public space, and to someone close or more distant.  

Social norms differed between positive emotions

The researchers found that expressivity norms differed between positive emotions, in a quite consistent way across all five countries. Gratitude, interest, and amusement were least constrained by these norms. These are emotions that potentially signal affiliation, where we tell others we are open to cooperate or form some sort of collaborative relationship. ‘In general, people consider such positive emotions okay to express’, states one of the researchers Kunalan Manokara.

In contrast, people believed some other positive emotions to be more constrained by social norms: sensory pleasure, feeling moved, and to some extent triumph. ‘In an interpersonal context, people could be offended if you show too much triumph; no one likes a show off,’ adds Manokara. ‘Expressing something like sensory pleasure could signal to others that you are self-absorbed. And the expression of feeling moved often involves tears, which probably explains the stringent social norms around it; most people refrain from crying openly.’

Context matters

Furthermore, contextual features substantially influenced norms for displaying positive emotions. Even for emotions that make people feel good, displaying them in public (rather than private) and with distant others (as opposed to close others) was deemed less appropriate. ‘The relationship between expresser and perceiver is a key determinant of expressivity norms. For example, we may think twice before sharing a joke with someone we’ve just met at a party, but such considerations hardly apply with our romantic partners’,  comments Manokara.

Some positive emotions are less acceptable than others

This paper provides the first map of expression norms for positive emotions. ‘Our findings demonstrate that some positive emotions are less acceptable to express than others’, conclude the authors. ‘It also highlights the central role of context in influencing display rules even for emotions that feel good.’

We might think we should try to be positive and express our good feelings, because it supports mental health and builds bridges between people. But the current research suggests not everything that feels good can be openly expressed. For some emotions, and in some contexts, a good amount of restraint seems necessary.

Publication details

Manokara, K., Fischer, A., & Sauter, D. (2022). ‘Display rules differ between positive emotions: Not all that feels good looks good.’ Emotion. Advance online publication

Researchers

Prof. dr. A.H. (Agneta) Fischer

Executive Staff

Decanen

Dr. D.A. (Disa) Sauter

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Social Psychology