Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Meta-emotion
What are meta-emotions? How do they influence our emotional lives?
Overview[edit | edit source]
From a young age, children express and identify emotions - we know what sadness, anger, and disgust may look like, just as we can show happiness, surprise, and fear. But sometimes, emotions become more complex. Instead of simply feeling angry at the injustices of the world, we can experience righteous indignation. Instead of solely feeling happy about indulging in a rich dessert, we can experience guilty pleasure. In such cases, intrinsically negative emotions such as anger might be valued, even enjoyed, whereas intrinsically positive emotions, such as happiness, might be unwelcome. Thus, happiness cannot always be equated to happiness, nor anger to anger. In such situations, the fundamental nature of emotions as either positive or negative does not always apply.
This has lead researchers to consider that an emotional phenomenon is at work. It has been determined that emotions can be accompanied by meta-emotions which colour the experience of the primary emotion, and "influence how people express and regulate them" (Bartsch et al., 2008, p. 8). Meta-emotions are emotions about emotions. As a relatively newly defined emotional concept, meta-emotion has become more pronounced in recent psychological research. Meta-emotions have been shown to influence our emotional lives in a number of ways, impacting our emotional regulation, well-being, psychopathology, and interpersonal relationships.
Definition[edit | edit source]
The term meta-emotion was first coined by John Gottman and colleagues in their work related to parenting philosophy (Gottman et al., 1996). They defined parental meta-emotion philosophy as "an organized set of feelings and thoughts about one's own emotions and one's children's emotions" (Gottman et al., 1996, p. 243). Their initial interest in the concept of parents' awareness of, and connection to their children's emotional lives led to the development of the meta-emotion interview.
Since then, research on the topic of meta-emotion has extended well beyond the field of family therapy. Psychological research in personality psychology, media psychology, decision making, and clinical psychology has operationalised meta-emotion in different ways, resulting in many different definitions. Notable descriptions of meta-emotion include:
- emotional reactions about the emotional self, with a self-regulatory function (Mitmansgruber et al., 2009)
- affective appraisals which can "change the expected course of the primary emotion" (Bartsch et al., 2010, p. 16)
- a set of strategies for adaptively discriminating, labelling, and regulating emotional information (Koven, 2011)
- a response to an emotion's physiological changes, expression, behavioural urges, or subjective feelings (Shaver et al., 2013)
- second-order emotions about one's own emotions (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019)
Within these descriptions there is some disagreement around whether a meta-emotion should be considered an emotion of its own right or as a self-regulatory system, and if meta-emotions stem from the appraisal of a full emotion or an individual subcomponent of an emotion. This is still up for debate in the literature today, nevertheless, these descriptions find a consensus in that meta-emotion involves emotions about emotions (see Figure 1; Norman & Furnes, 2016).
Psychological theories of meta-emotion[edit | edit source]
Meta-emotions have been theorised to be a distinct emotional experience (Bailen et al., 2019) and otherwise noted as a "special case of emotion" (Bartsch et al., 2008, p. 14). As such, there are few psychological theories specifically investigating meta-emotions. Instead, meta-emotion is conceptualised largely in terms of emotional theory. Indeed, much of the psychological research has viewed meta-emotions through an appraisal theory lens (Bartsch et al., 2008), though recent research has highlighted the structure of meta-emotions and how their properties differ from primary emotions.
Appraisal theories of emotion[edit | edit source]
Appraisal theorists such as Lazarus (1991), Frijda (1986), and Scherer (1984) consider emotions to be outcomes of cognitive processes. These appraisal theories consider how a person's perception of the conditions in a situation may elicit an emotion. It is argued that each emotion is characterised by a specific combination/pattern of appraisals - also called an appraisal profile. Combinations of the following criteria make up an appraisal profile (Jäger & Batsch, 2006):
- novelty - the perceived change in the situation,
- certainty - the perceived confidence as to whether (or what degree) the situation is (or will be) present,
- hedonic valence - the perceived positive or negative emotional value of the situation,
- goal relevance - the perceived relevance of the situation to the subject’s goals,
- normative adequacy - the perceived adequacy/inadequacy of the situation in reference to the individual's salient norms,
- agency - the perceived cause of the situation (individual or others or circumstance),
- controllability - the perceived potential for the individual to overcome, control or influence the situation (Jäger & Batsch, 2006).
It is suggested that a primary emotion, which is elicited by the appraisal of a situation, can then become the eliciting situation for a meta-emotion (Bailen et al., 2019). As yet, meta-emotions have not been systematically studied from an appraisal perspective, though the theories still lend themselves to explain the phenomenon of meta-emotion (Jäger & Bartsch, 2006; Bartsch, 2008). Indeed, meta-emotions are presumed to result when a primary emotion is appraised in a manner that fits within an emotion's appraisal profile (Jäger & Bartsch, 2006). In the above criteria, this would mean replacing the word 'situation' with 'primary emotion.' An example of a meta-emotional appraisal is given in the below box.
Imagine your partner was cancelled on by a friend. Your partner has been looking forward to this for some time and they feel disappointed. Rather surprisingly, your first response to hearing this news is joy, as you think that you can spend more time with them! However, you then feel the meta-emotion of shame (Figure 2). What happened that caused you to feel so differently? The appraisal profile of the meta-emotion shame-about-joy can be broadly explained with these appraisals (Jäger & Batsch, 2006):
This appraisal of joy may cause you to feel shame, in particular due to the goal-discrepancy, normative inadequacy, and personal agency appraisal profile. Perhaps to alleviate your shame-about-joy you will encourage your partner to make new plans, or attempt to repair the evening by taking your partner to a lovely dinner.
It is evident that the relationship between meta-emotions and primary emotions is equally as complex as the relationship between primary emotions and the eliciting event (Bartsch, 2008). The appraisal theories of emotion parsimoniously explain meta-emotion, despite not being developed or thoroughly validated for the phenomena. Little research has been conducted on how meta-emotions may be treated within other approaches (such as neurological, script theoretical, and social constructionist views) as noted by Jäger and Bartsch (2006). In spite of this apparent lack of research, Gottman and colleagues argue that we study meta-emotion more than we might presume (2013). They find that we always engage a person’s meta-emotion structure when eliciting emotion, whether we study it or not (Gottman et al., 2013). Furthermore, meta-emotion may account for some of the variance in emotional expression between subjects in emotion induction experiments such as the startle experiment (Gottman et al., 2013). Not only do meta-emotions align with emotional appraisal theory, meta-emotions also play an undeniable part in colouring emotional psychological research, whether this is intended or not.
Facets of meta-emotion[edit | edit source]
Gottman originally considered meta-emotion to be analogous to meta-cognition - cognition about one's own cognitions. As such, recent research has explored the facets of meta-cognition as pertaining to meta-emotion (Norman & Furnes, 2016). It has been proposed that meta-emotion can be more deeply understood as the interplay between the theoretically distinguishable meta-emotional experiences, knowledge, and strategies (Norman & Furnes, 2016).
The meta-emotional experiences facet refers to the raw feel or subjective component of the meta-emotion (Norman & Furnes, 2016). Meta-emotional experiences may not be consciously accessible or controllable and might be accompanied by cognitive experiences such as reflection. For example, if a father were to get angry at his child, he may feel unconsciously or uncontrollably guilty about his anger and reflect on the situation.
Meta-emotional knowledge, which refers to the organised set of thoughts about emotions, can be distinguished from, and influenced by meta-emotional experiences (Norman & Furnes, 2016). Synonymous to emotion knowledge, meta-emotional knowledge may include acknowledging one's own or other's emotions, knowledge about specific emotions, and knowledge about emotional antecedents. Mendonça indicates that meta-emotional knowledge can be taught through feedback from others about meta-emotional experiences (2013).
The facet of meta-emotional strategies can be defined as the deliberate use of strategies to control or change one's primary emotion (Norman & Furnes, 2016). These self-regulatory mechanisms can include distraction, suppression and reappraisal. For example, if a student expresses pride about their final grade inappropriately, they may feel the meta-emotion shame, and reappraise their grade as 'good enough, but nothing to be proud of.'
Although presented as separate, we can picture these facets as mutually dependent in meta-emotion (see Figure 3). This faceted model of meta-emotion is also reflected in the work of Bartsch and colleagues where it is stated that meta-emotion involves affective, cognitive, and motivational aspects (2008). They especially identified meta-emotion as "processes that involve appraisal of emotions as relevant to concerns beyond the scope of the primary emotion, affective reactions toward the primary emotion, and motivation to change the expected course of the primary emotion" (Bartsch et al., 2008, p. 16).
Properties of meta-emotions[edit | edit source]
Though meta-emotions largely stem from the same kinds of appraisals as a primary emotion, they have distinctive properties which facilitate their influence on our emotional lives. Paradox, responding to unexpressed primary emotions, and reflexivity are all unique properties of meta-emotions.
Paradox[edit | edit source]
Could one feel good about feeling bad, or bad about feeling good? Some meta-emotional pairs (ie. the primary emotion and meta-emotion) can result in what may appear to be a paradox. Consider feeling excited about feeling fear on a rollercoaster, or feeling sad about feeling joyful after losing a friend. These meta-emotional pairs show a mismatch between the positive and negative valence of the primary and meta-emotion (Jäger & Batsch, 2006). This paradoxical experience indicates that meta-emotional experiences can be Positive-Positive, Positive-Negative, Negative-Positive, and Negative-Negative (Bailen et al., 2019). Table 1 illustrates several examples for each type of these meta-emotional experiences.
Examples of Types of Meta-emotional Experiences (adapted from Bailen et al., 2019; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019)
|Negative Meta-Emotion||Positive Meta-Emotion|
|Negative Primary Emotion||Negative-Negative (NN) meta-emotional experience
||Negative-Positive (NP) meta-emotional experience
|Positive Primary Emotion||Positive-Negative (PN) meta-emotional experience
||Positive-Positive (PP) meta-emotional experience
|Unexpressed Primary Emotion
(Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019)
Response to unexpressed primary emotions[edit | edit source]
Meta-emotions can also arise from the non-expression of emotions (see last row of Table 1; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). In these cases, the non-expression of a felt emotion can still be evaluated/appraised, leading to the elicitation of a meta-emotion. For example, if a person did not express their (strongly felt!) sadness about being passed over for a promotion, they may feel angry about the non-expression of their sadness (angry-about-no sadness). Explaining this phenomenon further, the meta-emotion 'anger' can arise from an appraisal profile whereby someone else is responsible (agency) for blocking their goal (goal relevance) which is viewed as unfair (normative adequacy) (Kuppens et al., 2003). In this example, the person's anger arose from the perception that they were unable to express their sadness due to the presence of a co-worker which they found unfair.
However, if the primary emotion is not felt or expressed, then there can be no meta-emotion, only a meta-cognitive evaluation of an imagined state (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). For example, if a person did not feel or express sadness in front of a bully (Figure 4), then the primary emotion is not sadness (as this was not felt) but instead may be pride (or anger, or joy). This could result in a cognitive evaluation of how the situation may have changed if the person had of felt sadness.
Reflexivity[edit | edit source]
Meta-emotions are not only influenced by the primary emotions, but can also reflexively shape the experience of the primary emotions through magnification, attenuation, or reversal (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). This means that the most fundamental part of the primary emotion - the hedonic valence - can be altered from positive to negative or vice versa, as well as in intensity and quality (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). Additionally, Miceli and Castelfranchi argue that meta-emotions can produce responses that reflexively modify one's emotional experience, decisions, goals, behaviour, and to an extent, one's identity (2019). This reflexivity has been thought to potentially "produce vicious circles and rebound effects" (Mitmansgruber et al., 2009 p. 448). Consider feeling interested in a person (romantically or aspirationally). If you then felt embarrassed-about-interest - perhaps someone caught you staring or judged the subject of your interest undesirably - how might this impact your interest? Like many of us, does your interest now have a negative valence? Do you feel less intensely interested? Would your decisions and behaviour be different now? Reflexivity can act as a powerful function of meta-emotions.
Influence of meta-emotions on emotional lives[edit | edit source]
It is posited that although meta-emotions require a significant level of attention and clarity, most people are capable of meta-emotional experiences (Bailen et al., 2019). Bailen and colleges found in a diverse sample that on average, participants experienced a meta-emotion roughly 5.6% of the time when measured 56 times in a week (2019). As such, meta-emotional experiences are not only proposed to be common and wide-ranging phenomenon (Bailen et al., 2019), but also to have significant influence over our emotional lives. We see this impact in the research linking meta-emotion to emotional regulation, subjective and psychological well-being, psychopathology, and relationships.
Emotional regulation[edit | edit source]
Meta-emotions can function as adaptive processes which influence our emotional lives through emotion regulation. Norman and Furnes (2016) state that meta-emotions themselves can be considered a strategy for using emotional information adaptively through attending to, labelling, discriminating amongst, and regulating emotions. However, there are also strategies for emotional regulation which are influenced by meta-emotions including situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019; Gross, 2008). Most importantly, meta-emotions can motivate change towards achieving our emotional goals and matching our emotions to our values/self-standards (Figure 5).
Emotion goals[edit | edit source]
Meta-emotions act as a sort of 'acceptability gauge' for the primary emotion. Negatively valenced meta-emotions (NN or PN) find the primary emotion unacceptable, whereas positively valanced meta-emotions (PP or NP) find the primary emotion acceptable (Mitmansgruber et al., 2009). When meta-emotions act as this gauge, our current and future emotional lives are oriented toward or away certain experiences, depending if they align with our emotional goals (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). In this way, meta-emotions motivate people to either change their emotion or the situation (when NN or PN), or maintain their emotion or the situation (when PP or NP) via the emotional regulation strategies listed above (Gross, 2008). As an example, joy-about-interest may imply the emotion goal of developing and maintaining interest, and may trigger the meta-emotional goal to seek out interest-arousing situations in the future.
Values and self-standards[edit | edit source]
In addition to regulating a person's emotional goals, meta-emotions can also regulate a person's attitudes and behaviours via their values or self-standards (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). Without meta-emotions, it is possible that we would drift significantly from our ideal self-standards and values with our emotional responses, resulting in poor psychosocial outcomes (such as those associated with incongruence or cognitive dissonance). For instance, negative meta-emotions can favour repressive coping and emotional avoidance in the attempt to 'get rid of' primary emotions which are unconsciously disapproved of, though this can lead to dysfunctional attitudes and behaviours. Negative meta-emotions about negative primary emotions in particular can create self-perpetuating and paralysing conditions (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). Conversely, positive meta-emotions may result in approach behaviours, as the primary emotion is approved of in terms of values and self-standards. As an example of how meta-emotions can regulate attitudes and behaviours, consider the negative meta-emotion fear-about-fear. This meta-emotion illustrates how we might alter our behaviour to avoid situations that elicit the primary emotion, as it is inconsistent with values or self-standards ("I'm a brave person. I value courage. But I feel afraid... I need to get away from this situation."). This might create a dysfunction in attitude ("I'm not brave at all - I'm anxious!") or perpetuate the problem, such as in panic disorder ("I shouldn't feel so afraid. What is wrong with me? Am I dying?").
Psychological well-being and psychopathology[edit | edit source]
Meta-emotions have been widely researched in relation to well-being and its associated concepts, including psychopathology and mindfulness. A study conducted by Mitmansgruber and colleagues found a powerful effect of meta-emotions on well-being, over and above mindfulness (2009). The findings of this study suggests that positive meta-emotions in particular are associated with increases in well-being and life satisfaction, most likely due to the acceptance of the primary emotion embedded in its positive appraisal. However, other psychological research indicates that negative meta-emotions are not always detrimental to well-being, as evidenced in a sample of paramedics (Mitmansgruber et al., 2008). Though the meta-emotion of anger had the expected negative effect on wellbeing, other negative meta-emotions such as contempt, shame, and 'tough control' (compromising diverse negative meta-emotional experiences, one item under tough control was ‘‘When I am sad or anxious I am rather stern to myself” ) were found to be beneficial to well-being (Mitmansgruber et al., 2008). This illustrates how meta-emotions are a separate, but interacting concept to well-being, psychopathology, and negative affect (Mitmansgruber et al., 2008).
Consider then the effect of meta-emotions on emotional disorders. In one study, depression severity was positively associated with NN meta-emotional experiences (Bailen et al., 2019). Practically, this finding aligns with maladaptive appraisals and the non-acceptance of negative feelings oft depicted in cases of depression and other emotional disorders (Predatu et al., 2019). Indeed, some treatments for depression and anxiety such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness-based therapies specifically address the acceptance of primary emotions (ie. feeling fewer negative meta-emotions), resulting a reduction in anxious and depressive symptoms (Bailen et al., 2019; Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2019). In relation to PTSD and post-traumatic growth, positive meta-emotions and meta-cognitions were found to impede the development of PTSD after a natural disaster, and facilitate adaptive functioning in the form of post-traumatic growth (Nalipay & Mordeno, 2017). Although the sample sizes in these studies were small, taken together, this research highlights the importance of positive meta-emotions when dealing with challenging situations, and accepting negative primary emotions as they arise instead of feeling 'bad' about them.
Relationships[edit | edit source]
Circling back to Gottman, meta-emotion is also thought to influence our, and other people's emotional lives via our relationships (Figure 6). Meta-emotions are considered an integral part of parenting and are understood more broadly as "parent's awareness of specific emotions, their awareness of these emotions in their child, and their coaching of the emotion in their child." (Gottman et al., 2013 p. 6). Following this definition, parents largely fall into two emotional parenting styles; 1) emotion dismissing where parents try to eliminate negative emotions in their children as these feelings are seem as harmful, or 2) emotion coaching where parents encourage emotion knowledge in their children by helping them label/accept emotions and offering strategies for coping in emotion-eliciting situations (Chen et al., 2012). A parent's meta-emotional philosophy has been shown to have an impact on their parenting style, and consequently the social and emotional outcomes for their child. For instance, the emotion coaching parenting style (where parental meta-emotions are accepting towards their child's emotions) was found to significantly and positively impact a child's attachment style (Chen et al., 2012) and peer social competence (Gottman et al., 1996). Similar positive outcomes can be found in marital relationships. High levels of positive meta-emotions were associated with higher levels of marital adjustment in terms of marital consensus, affection, cohesion, and satisfaction among Indian couples (Rani et al., 2017). Taken together, positive meta-emotions are associated with positive outcomes in relationships, whereas negative meta-emotions are not. Evidently, the way we see emotions and how we feel about the way others feel can influence our relationships and the emotional lives of those around us.
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
Meta-emotions are secondary emotional responses to primary emotional experiences. Psychological research has indicated that meta-emotions align with the appraisal theory of emotion and have special properties including reflexivity, paradox, and responding to unexpressed primary emotions. Meta-emotions can be both adaptive and maladaptive. In terms of adaptivity, meta-emotions function as an 'acceptability gauge' to help modify current and future emotional experiences in a way that fits emotion goals, values, and self-standards. However, meta-emotions can have a complex impact on individual well-being and interpersonal relationships resulting in both functional and dysfunctional outcomes. As such, it is helpful to become aware of one's meta-emotions, and understand what they might be trying to tell us about our primary emotions, the situation, or ourselves. While they may make life uncomfortable at times, people's emotional lives simply would not be as colourful, nor as rich, without the influence of meta-emotions.
See also[edit | edit source]
- John Gottman (Wikipedia)
- Emotional intelligence (Book chapter, 2011)
- Emotion (Wikiversity)
- Guilty pleasure (Book chapter, 2020)
- Meta-emotion (Wikipedia)
- Mood (Wikiversity)
- Emotional regulation (Wikipedia)
References[edit | edit source]
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[edit | edit source]
- How you feel about feelings (The Gottman Institute)
- Feeling all the feels: Crash Course Psychology #25 (Crash Course)