What, Emotions are Social?

Check out the new study on Burning Man and emotional regulation.

Study shows how Burning Man’s unique culture alters your emotional regulation

Most of the time, we think about and treat emotions as something intensely personal–the product of our own internal issues, drives and responses.  Yet now it seems as though psychologists are confirming Arlie Hochschild’s work on the sociology of emotions.  The central premise, that emotions are not something that solely arise from your interior life, makes sense when we probe a bit deeper.  Think of all those times you psyched yourself up to be sad at a funeral or happy at a wedding.  Hochschild argues that we only notice the way in which emotions are profoundly social (and which have “feeling rules” about the extent, length, and way in which express emotion) when there is a mismatch between what the social situation requires and where we are at when we walk into the situation.  However, most of us do emotion management on a regular basis and don’t even notice it.

Moreover, most of us don’t even question the feeling rules out there, we just follow them.  Think of the DSM-V’s new guidelines for depression, which tell us that in North America, people who feel sad even after someone close to them has died for more than two weeks should be diagnosed and medicated for clinical depression.  Some cultures may find this quite strange, indeed.

In this case, Burning Man is an incredible way to look at the ways in which culture and cultural “microclimates” can profoundly impact our behavior. From the article:

“What first drew me to study emotion regulation at Burning Man is that Burning Man has very explicit values (the ten principles of Burning Man) and one of them is radical self-expression,” McRae explained. “I thought it would be really interesting to see how that explicit value impacted the types of emotion regulation that people use when they’re there. And indeed, we find that people inhibit their emotional expression less often when they’re at Burning Man than typically at home.”

Hochschild approaches this by looking at professions in her book The Managed Heart and, specifically, the unacknowledged role of emotional expression as part of the job description of being a flight attendant.  How much of their job requires that they express the right emotions once they clock in?  What if they don’t?  How do they manage their emotions in order to perform their job in the “microclimate” of the airplane?

Hochschild’s work has brought some of the most compelling and interesting insights to sociology in the last fifty years.   Psychology, however, has largely treated emotions as a function of individual expression.  Freud, after all, thought they were a product of the ID.  As psychologists moved away from the Freudian model, they still largely focused on the interior workings of one’s brain chemistry and largely ignored the role of culture.  True, culture seems to be rather amorphous–difficult to ascertain, test, and all the rest.  Yet it is important.  Studies on cultural microclimates is a step in the right direction in terms of testing whether and how what we do is driven by our own inner demons or by the strictures and expectations of the world around us.  It’s good to see that psychologists are finally paying attention to these questions.

About AL Aunio

Born in Boston and raised in working-class New Jersey, Anna-Liisa Aunio was awarded the Jon Bon Jovi “Dare to Dream” scholarship in 1992. She was 18. She had big hair. And it was the high point of her life. Been downhill ever since. But seriously, Anna-Liisa restlessly fled the lawns and picket fences of her youth first chance she got. Initially to New York City, where she traded on Wall Street (by day), whilst living like Carrie Bradshaw (by night); then to Baltimore, where she managed a national drop-out prevention program (by day), whilst living like Rick James (by night); and, most recently, to Montreal, where she teaches sociology at Dawson College (by day), whilst living like Claire Dunphy (by night). Along the way, she's picked up a few degrees—a BA from Rutgers, an MA from Johns Hopkins, a PhD from McGill—and a husband. But she'd prefer to talk about her kids.

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