The Evolution of Pro-Social Emotion

Historically, research on emotion has emphasized the intrapersonal characteristics and functions of emotion, addressing such questions as: What is the experience of emotion? How does emotion influence judgment? Advocates of a social functional approach assume that emotions enable individuals to respond adaptively to the problems and opportunities that define human social living, from care-giving to status negotiation, and have begun to address how emotions shape social interactions, relationships, and roles. This work is guided by the notion that these emotions are important commitment devices, motivating pro-social, other-oriented action in the face of self-interest.

For example, we have documented the nonverbal display of love and how it covaries with oxytocin release in the bloodstream, that humans can communicate emotions like gratitude and compassion with one second touches to a stranger’s forearm, that a region of the autonomic nervous system is centrally involved in pro-social positive emotions, and that awe expands the self to more communal conceptions. We have begun to understand the emotion of awe, which is elicited by appraisals that the self is in the presence of something vast and the perceived need to accommodate one’s current beliefs to new knowledge or insights, which promotes curiosity and humility. We have learned that awe is readily conveyed in brief vocalizations, and facial muscle movements. We have started to look at how laughter relates to altruism and generosity. We have documented how people who report the trait-like tendency to experience compassion show an elevated profile of vagal tone, see common humanity with others, and are more likely to engage in altruistic actions and be trusted and trusting of others in relationships.

Power, Social Class, and Hierarchies

Power is central to social interaction and social structure. In a theoretical synthesis published in Psychological Review, my colleagues and I have argued that elevated power, defined by control, freedom, and the absence of social constraint, lead to approach-related behaviors and relatively automatic thought; reduced power, in contrast, increases inhibition and vigilance. In the past three years my students and I have published empirical tests of several of the propositions outlined in this theory. We have documented how increased power: (1) reduces the accuracy with which we judge others’ emotions; (2) reduces felt compassion toward others who suffer; and (3) alters emotions. We have offered two new theoretical extensions in our thinking about power. The first concerns who obtains power, and here we have argued, based on several years of data, that power is afforded to those who advance the interests of the collective, and not to those who act in selfish ways. And second, we have begun to explore how socio economic status operates in similar (and different ways) to power dynamics.

Emotions and Moral Judgment

The study of moral judgment is enjoying a renaissance, and a long overdue interest in the emotions. The thinking in this field is that emotions act as fast, spontaneous intuitions about moral concerns (e.g., disgust makes salient moral concerns about the purity of body and mind). Several of my students and I are working on specific predictions that derive from this perspective. We have documented the role of emotions such as anger and disgust in moral prejudices against outgroups as well as how emotions figure into judgments of risk and value.