The Effect of Reactive Emotions Expressed in Response to Another’s Anger on Inferences of Social Power

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Abstract

Social perception of emotions is influenced by the context in which it occurs. One such context is a social interaction involving an exchange of emotions. The way parties to the interaction are perceived is shaped by the combination of emotions exchanged. This idea was examined by assessing the extent to which expressions of anger toward a target—which, in isolation, are perceived as signals of high social power—are influenced by the target’s emotional reaction to it (i.e., reactive emotions). Three studies show that the angry person was perceived as having a higher level of social power when this anger was responded by fear or sadness than when it was responded by neutrality or anger. Study 1 indicated that reactive emotions have a stronger effect on perceived social power when emotions were incongruent with gender stereotypes. Study 2 indicated that these effects are a result of these emotions serving as reactive emotions rather than a benchmark against which the angry person’s power is assessed. Study 3 showed that reactive emotions affect perceived social power by serving as signals of the level to which the high social power suggested by the first person’s expression is confirmed by its target. Comparing effects of reactive emotions to anger with reactive emotions to sadness, showed that perceived social power of the expresser is determined by the nature of the expression, with some adjustment caused by the reactive emotions. This underscores the importance of social interaction as a context for the social perception of emotions.

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