Can socially sharing emotions change emotions? BernarD rimé
What are the reasons why talking out and sharing an emotional experience fail to reduce the impact of this experience? Answering this question requires us to look at the constituents of an emotional impact. Emotions are triggered when meanings elicited by supervening events conflict with the person’s systems of expectations (e.g., Carver and Scheier, 2002). A complex network of the episode is then formed in long-term memory with cognitions of three types: (1) the initial appraisal, or meaning, of the encoded emotional situation, (2) the representation of the goals that were blocked in this situation, and (3) the representations (i.e., expectations, schemas, models, world views) that were disconfirmed in the situation. Such cognitions have the power to sustain the signaling function of emotions: the network then recurrently re-accesses the working memory and re-captures focal attention. For getting rid of this emotional impact of a past episode, and thus for achieving emotional recovery, turning off each of these various memory-sustaining cognitions is necessary. This requires achieving complex cognitive tasks involving (1) assimilation of the episode through reframing or reappraisal of the event, (2) abandonment of the frustrated goals and reorganization of one’s hierarchy of motives, and (3) accommodation of models and schemas. Can the social sharing of emotion contribute to these cognitive tasks? Several arguments lead us to answer this question negatively. Most of the spontaneous sharing develops immediately after the episode. In 60 per cent of cases, it is initiated on the day the episode happened, and it vanishes after a day or two. In this early period, people are generally not open to cognitive changes. Rather, they concentrate on the unattained goal with invigoration and repetitive efforts (e.g., Martin and Tesser, 1989). They refuse to abandon their frustrated goals, do not consider modifying their hierarchy of motives, stick to their existing schemas, do not want to change their representations, stand by their initial appraisal of the emotional situation, and do not feel ready to reframe it nor to change their perspective. In addition, their listeners are not likely to stimulate the cognitive work. Simplistic interventions usually prevail among nonvictims (e.g., Burleson, 1985). Thus, when more intense emotional experiences are shared, listeners’ responses become less verbal and increasingly nonverbal (Christophe and Rimé, 1997). In sum, spontaneous emotional sharing is unlikely to fuel the cognitive route leading to emotional recovery. Of course, nothing precludes listeners from providing responses proper to stimulate the sharing cognitive processing. But the investigation of spontaneous sharing situations suggests that this is far from being common. Ample opportunity is then left to professional intervention whose work is precisely to focus their clients on the cognitive processing of emotional episodes. Data showed that when this is done, social sharing can bring emotional recovery (Nils and Rimé, 2012). Should it then be concluded that the emotional expression, as it naturally develops in social situations, is simply a vain process? An affirmative response to this question would be absurd considering the spectacular urge with which individuals and communities engage in social sharing as soon as they undergo an emotional episode. Hence it is important to consider the other face of studies that failed evidencing recovery effects of emotional sharing. Thus, in experimental
studies conducted by Zech and Rimé (2005), compared to participants in control conditions, those who had shared an emotional episode rated the sharing session as more emotionally relieving, more cognitively helpful, and more interpersonally beneficial. Similarly, in spite of their inconclusive results regarding emotional recovery, psychological debriefing procedures commonly yield clear benefits among participants who generally express gratefulness for the support, validation, and understanding they found. Abundant data in the same direction resulted from the study of collective emotional sharing. In Weiss and Richards’ (1997) study, bereaved partners who took part in mourning rituals showed a superior quality of social functioning on a variety of indicators compared to those who had not. In the Guatemala study conducted by Martin-Beristain et al. (2000), survivors who participated in mourning rituals scored higher than those who did not, on various indicators of good social functioning. They evidenced higher scores on reconstruction of social support and on altruistic behaviour. They also had lower scores for helplessness and disengagement. In the post-genocide Rwanda study, participation in transitional justice rituals enhanced social integration by reducing perceived outgroup homogeneity, decreasing ingroup self-categorization, and increasing positive stereotypes among both victim and prisoner participants (Kanyangara et al., 2007; Rimé et al., 2011). After the terrorist attacks in Spain, participation in protest demonstrations was predictive of positive affect, of received social support, of social integration and well-being, as well as of posttraumatic growth, when assessed in later weeks (Rimé et al., 2010). Thus, despite its lack of effect on emotional recovery, there is abundant observation of positive effects resulting from the social sharing of emotional experiences. Where do these effects come from? A typical interpersonal dynamic develops in sharing situations (Christophe and Rimé, 1997). Targets evidenced a marked interest for shared emotional episodes, their emotions varied in intensity as a function of the intensity of the shared episode, and they reacted to higher intensity episodes by reducing their verbal responses and by enhancing their nonverbal ones (body contact, taking into the arms, or kissing). Thus, Person A who experienced an emotion shares it with B who, by manifesting a strong interest, stimulates sharing so that A expresses emotions more and more. This arouses emotions in B and this reciprocal stimulation ends up in an emotional communion. Empathy leads B to help and support A which enhances B’s liking for A. The latter being the focus of B’s attention, interest, empathy, and support, also experiences enhanced liking for A. In sum, sharing emotion has the potential to bring interacting persons closer to one another. As sharing is most predominant among intimates (Rimé et al., 1998), it is instrumental in maintaining, refreshing, and strengthening important social bonds. Given that emotional sharing arouses emotion and given that emotion elicits social sharing, those who were exposed to the sharing of an emotion thereafter strongly incline in sharing what they heard with third persons. In other words, a process of secondary social sharing develops (Christophe and Rimé, 1997). Curci and Bellelli (2004) demonstrated that three-quarters of emotional episodes that are personally confided to someone are then shared by this target with other
people. Further, as targets of secondary sharing also experience emotion when listening, they also incline to tertiary sharing. Episodes heard in a secondary sharing are indeed shared again with one new listener for one third of participants, and with several new listeners for another third (Rimé and Christophe, 1997). Emotional episodes thus propagate very easily across social networks. The fact that such a process actually occurs in real life was nicely confirmed in a field observation of 33 college students (Harber and Cohen, 2005). Their emotional responses to a visit of a morgue predicted how many people they told (primary sharing),how many people their friends told (secondary sharing), andhow many people their friends’ friends told (tertiarysharing). Within ten days, nearly 900 people heard about thisevent through these cascading levels of social sharing. Social consequences of emotions can be enhanced dramatically when events strike collectively (e.g., collective loss, victory, defeat, success, failure, catastrophe, accident, common threat, etc.). In private emotional experiences, sharing originates in one single source. It thus propagates essentially in an exocentric direction, and the propagation wave extinguishes as the social distance from the original source increases. By contrast, in collective emotional events, there are as many sharing sources as there are members in the concerned community. Consequently, the sharing diffuses in as many directions and thus generates innumerable propagation waves. Within this process, each moment of social sharing reactivates emotions in each of the involved interactants, thus reloading the propagation flow and further feeding a chain reaction. From the above observations, it appears that in social sharing situations, individuals’ consciousnesses echo one another. The shared episode and the expression of associated emotions by a member of the social group have the power to vividly elicit analogous feelings in people around them, so that a reciprocal stimulation of emotion follows. Such a circular process is particularly propitious to eliciting a state of emotional communion among participants. As a result, the salience of their self is lowered, and elements of their common identity are enhanced. They thus end up experiencing unity and similarity. It was abundantly demonstrated that mere self-disclosure already brings up such effects, enhancing reciprocal liking, and bringing interactants closer to one another (Collins and Miller, 1994). Such a process is proper to enhance participants positive affects, with particular consequences in terms of feelings of solidarity and prosocial orientation. In collective situations, the social sharing of emotion can thus easily boost participants’ feelings of group belonging and of social integration. By the same token, shared beliefs and collective representations are brought to the foreground, thus consolidating participants’ faith in their cultural beliefs and confidence in collective action. As a consequence, participants will be able to return to their individual life endowed with feelings of strength, with enhanced trust in life, and with feelings of self-confidence. Such a rationale was already proposed by Durkheim (1912) a century ago. It still offers a very likely model of the way through which, without bringing emotional recovery, spontaneous social sharing of emotion can buffer the temporary destabilization that any negative emotional experience entails.