Stress Increases Women’s Performance and Empathic Attunement, but not Men’s

Livia Tomova

Livia Tomova

Task performance, social interaction skills, and empathic attunement increase for women under stress, but not for men.
Women seek social support (“become prosocial”), but men turn toward themselves and away from others when they experience stress, according to University of Vienna’s Livia Tomova and Claus Lamm with Bernadette von Dawans and Markus Heinrichs of University of Freiburg, and Giorgia Silani, International School for Advanced Studies, SISSA-ISAS, Trieste

Claus Lamm

Claus Lamm

Tomova’s team evaluated the impact of stress on 20 women and 20 men, elicited by Clemens Kirschbaum, Karl-Martin Pirke, and Dirk Hellhammer’s (Universität) Trier Social Stress Test, in which participants delivered a speech and performed mental arithmetic in front of an audience.

Bernadette von Dawans

Bernadette von Dawans

Tomova and team measured “self-other distinctions” during three types of tasks:

  • Imitated movements  (perceptual-motor task): “Move objects on a shelf according to the instructions of a director,” requiring participants to “disentangle their own visual perspective” from that of the director
  • Identifying  one’s  own  emotions or  other  people’s  emotions  (emotional  task),  or
  • Making a judgment from another person’s perspective (cognitive task).
Markus Heinrichs

Markus Heinrichs

As a comparison, 20 men and 20 women completed non-stressful activities like “easy counting.”

Women and men showed similar physiological reactions to stress, but stress decreased men’s performance in all tasks.
In contrast, women’s performance on all tasks improved under stress

Giorgia Silani

Giorgia Silani

Specifically, women who experienced stress demonstrated more accurate understanding of others’ perspective than non-stressed women and men.
However, men under stress showed less ability to accurately detect others’ probable thoughts and feelings.

Walter Cannon

Walter Cannon

Studies of stress were pioneered by Harvard’s Walter Cannon, who described the fight-or-flight response in1914, and popularized by Hans Selye of Université de Montréal.  

Hans Selye

Hans Selye

People can cope with stress by:

  • Seeking social support
  • Reducing “internal cognitive load” that requires additional coping efforts

One way to reduce “internal cognitive load” is to disconnect from others’ perspective and emotional experience through reduced empathy, measured by understanding one’s emotional and mental states as well as those of others.
Besides this process of “mentalizing,” empathy also requires people to distinguish their representations of themselves from representations of others.

Clemens Kirschbaum

Clemens Kirschbaum

Women under stress “flexibly disambiguate” mental representations of themselves from others and increase “self-other distinction,” found Tomova’s research group.
This cognitive style enables women to more accurately perceive others’ perspective, enabling more empathic interaction with others in a “tend-and-befriend” approach.

In contrast, men under stress typically turn inward with “increased egocentricity” to conserve mental and emotional resources for “flight-or-flight” responses, leading to less adaptive social interactions.

Dirk Hellhammer

Dirk Hellhammer

These differences may be rooted in biological differences and gender-specific learning experiences, pointing to higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone that mediates social behaviors, among women who experienced stress, noted Tomova’s research team.
As a result, women may seek more frequently seek social support, may interact with others more empathically, and may be rewarded with external help in a reinforcing cycle.

Nikolas Rose

Nikolas Rose

Social support can improve performance and reduce stress, probably because the brain is “wired for sociality,” according to King’s College London Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached of Harvard.

Gender differences in performance under stress are associated with different styles of “sociality” and empathic insight.

-*How do you maintain task performance and “Emotional Intelligence” of empathy when experiencing stress?

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Symbolic Gestures Can Prompt Behaviors, Shape Perceptions

Michal Parzuchowski

Michal Parzuchowski

Non-emotional gestures can “prime” abstract concepts, like “honesty,” and prompts people to behave consistent with these ideas, according to Michal Parzuchowski and Bogdan Wojciszke of University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Sopot, Poland.

Bodgan Wojciszke

Bodgan Wojciszke

They evaluated a symbolic gesture, putting a hand on one’s heart (“HOH”), which is associated with “honesty” in Poland, where the studies were conducted.

In the U.S., this gesture has a different meaning: Patriotism when enacted during The Pledge of Allegiance.
This distinction demonstrates cultural variation between specific gestures, and suggests opportunities for related research in other geographies.

HOHv NeutralVolunteers who performing this gesture were described as appearing more “honest” and trustworthy than when the same people enacted a neutral control gesture.

In addition, participants who performed the hand-over-heart gesture behaved more honestly when they provided more honest assessments of others’ attractiveness and refrained from cheating, compared to volunteers who performed neutral gestures.

Bodily experience associated with abstract concepts can influence both perceptions of others, and one’s own behaviors to align with the intangible idea – and the effect doesn’t depend on peoples’ emotional states.

More than 35 Polish volunteers listened to parts of a recorded job interview in which the applicant made several low-credibility statements like “I have never been late for work” and “I have never argued with members of my family.”

As they listened, participants viewed the speaker’s photograph.
Half of the participants saw a photo showing the speaker with both of hands placed behind the back, whereas the other half saw an image of the speaker with right hand over the heart (HOH).
Then, all participants rated the speaker’s credibility.

Participants rated the speaker pictured with hand over heart as more believable, suggesting that the gesture, locally associated with honesty, leading volunteers to perceive the person producing the signal of honesty “…as more credible, even if her statements are not very credible.”

Other volunteers rated the appearance of women in photographs, previously rated by independent judges as “moderate to low attractiveness”.
The women were described as the experimenter’s friends, to “prime” social desirability for a favorable evaluation from participants.

HOH-hipResearchers asked volunteers to enact gestures to “increase their cognitive load”:  Half the volunteers completed ratings while holding their right hand over their hearts whereas the other participants placed hand on their hips.

Participants who held their hand over their hearts rated less attractive faces significantly lower than volunteers who held their hand on their hips, suggesting that they the “’Hand-over-Heart’ gesture influenced people to respond more honestly,“…even if it meant being impolite.

HOJH v shoulderIn another study, more than 50 volunteers solved math problems and reported number completed .

Some wrote solutions with their dominant hands, but others held a “breathing monitor band” by either:

  • Putting right hand on left shoulder, or
  • Right hand over heart.

Participant had an incentive to exaggerate the number of completed problems because researchers told volunteers that one randomly-selected participant would be receive cash prize for each correct answer.

Those who held their hands on their shoulders claimed they solved 45 percent more problems than either of the other two groups, whereas people who held hands over hearts accurately reported completed problems, suggesting that temptation to embellish problem-solving performance was overridden by acting consistently with the gesture associated with honesty.

Bodily sensations influence the way we think, feel, and act…(and) a bodily sensation may activate the concept associated with it; this in turn may shape information processing, and behavior,” concluded Parzuchowski and Wojciszke.

These findings validate the idea of “embodied cognition” – bodily experience and states can influence thinking and likewise, thinking can affect bodily experience and states.
Other examples include judgments of height, weight, importance influenced by physical experiences.

Anita Eerland

Anita Eerland

People whose native language is read and written from left to right typically make smaller estimates of weight and height when leaning to the left (“posture-modulated estimation”) because their language leads them to represent numbers along a continuum with smaller numbers on the left and larger numbers on the right (“mental-number-line theory”), according to Anita Eerland now of Open University of the Netherlands with Max Planck Institute’s Tulio Guadalupe, and Rolf Zwaan of Erasmus University.

Tulio Guadalupe

Tulio Guadalupe

They induced people to lean slightly to the right or to the left by asking them to stand on a Wii Balance Board while answering estimation questions.
Eerland and team changed the directional lean as subjects leaned left or right, or stood upright without mentioning changes in position

When participants were leaned to the left, they produced significantly smaller estimates were than when they leaned to the right.

Eerland-Zwaan Wedding

Eerland-Zwaan Wedding

These results may vary for participants whose native language is read and written from right to left, and Eerland and team suggested replicating this study with other language groups.

Lynden Miles

Lynden Miles

Thoughts can lead to changed body position, found University of Aberdeen’s Lynden Miles, Louise Nind, and C Neil Macrae, when they asked volunteers to think about the future.

Imagining future events caused participants to shift their body position to lean forward, whereas they leaned back when asked to think about the past.

Similarly, qualitative dimension ratings can be affected by physical experience.

When volunteers judged a proposal’s importance, they rated it more momentous when holding a heavy object, according to University of Amsterdam’s Nils B. Jostmann, Daniël Lakens of Utrecht University and Institute Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa, Lisbon’s Thomas W. Schubert.

European participants guessed the value of foreign currency in Euros while recording answers on either a heavy clipboard or a light-weight clipboard.
Those who held the lighter clipboard estimated lower average values.

In addition, volunteers estimated the importance of University students participating in making foreign study grant decisions.
Participants who held the heavier clipboard rated student participation as more important.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

Jostmann and team experimentally demonstrated the impact of body, physical objects, and abstract metaphors on thinking, originally posited by University of California, Berkeley’s George Lakoff and Mark Johnson who linked

  • Control and Mood to direction:

“I have control over him,”
“I am on top of the situation,”
“He’s at the height of his power,”
“He ranks above me in strength,”

“I’m feeling up today”
“He is under my control,”
“His power is on the decline.

“I’m feel down in the dumps.”

  • Love, interpersonal connection to physical force

“I could feel the electricity between us”
“There were sparks
“They gravitated to each other”

  • Anger to heat, pressure

“He’s hot under the collar
“She said it in the heat of anger

John Bargh

John Bargh

Similarly, trustworthiness was associated with the physical experience of warmth when volunteer participants judged a new acquaintance as trustworthy after only a brief interaction when participants held a cup of warm coffee instead of a cold beverage, according to Yale’s John Bargh.

Embodied cognition” is one explanation for the interactive influence of symbolic thought, movement, and bodily experience on one’s behavior and peoples’ perceptions of others.

-*What metaphors and symbolic gestures affect your behavior?

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Racial Categorizations Change Based on Social Status Markers

Aliya Saperstein

Aliya Saperstein

Race is a changeable status marker of rather than a fixed individual attribute, according to Stanford’s Aliya Saperstein and Andrew Penner of University of California, Irvine.

Andrew Penner

Andrew Penner

Racial fluidity” – or changeable racial categorization – influences and is influenced by racial inequality in the United States, noted Saperstein and Penner.

They analyzed longitudinal U.S. national survey data collected over two decades and found that individuals’ racial classification, both rated by themselves and by others, changed over time in response to changes in social position.

In these data, unemployed, incarcerated, or impoverished Americans were more likely to be seen and self-identify as Black, even if the same individuals were originally classified in a different racial category.

Jonathan Freeman

Jonathan Freeman

Racial self-perception and racial perceptions by others depend on social position, even though most people believe that race is perceived in facial features, such as skin color.
However, social status cues around a face systematically change the perception of race, found Dartmouth’s Jonathan B. Freeman, Matthias Scheutz of Tufts, with Penner, Saperstein and her Stanford colleague, Nalini Ambady.

Matthias Scheutz

Matthias Scheutz

Participants categorized 16 computer-generated face identities (8 male) that were morphed along a 13-point race continuum, from White (morph −6) to Black (morph +6).
Developed by Max Planck Institute’s Volker Blanz and Thomas Vetter, this program generated 3D models based on laser scans of human faces.

Volunteers saw faces in a randomized order and evaluated them as White or Black using the keyboard, which recorded and analyzed mouse movement with MouseTracker software.

Participants rated the race of faces along “White–Black morph continua” when they saw faces with “high-status” attire (suit) or “low-status” attire (maintenance uniform).

“Low-status” attire increased the likelihood of categorization as Black, whereas “high-status” attire increased the likelihood of categorization as White, and this effect increased as physical characteristics associated with each race became more ambiguous.

The team  also monitored hand movements to determine hesitation in making a racial category decision.

They noted hesitation and shifting between choices when participants categorized faces with high-status attire as “Black” or faces with low-status attire as “White.”
Stereotypes interact with contextual and physical cues to shape “neutrally- plausible” person categorization, concluded Freeman and team.

When stereotypes associated with race and occupation categories overlap, contextual cues to occupation can activate social status stereotypes, then exert “top-down pressure” on the race categorization process.

For example, business attire can activate high-status stereotypes that influence visual processing of race-categorization.
Race categorization, therefore, could be driven by both “bottom-up” processing of facial features, and “top-down” stereotypes activated by contextual cues.

Racial fluidity reinforces stereotypic status differences by classifying “successful” or high-status people as “White” or “not Black” and “unsuccessful” or low-status people as “Black” or “not White.”

“Social cognition” can influence visual perception because “person perception…makes compromises between how other people “actually” appear and the stereotyped expectations dictating how they ‘should’ appear,” noted Freeman and team.

Aaron Gullickson

Aaron Gullickson

The U.S. briefly fluidity and ambiguity in racial classification when it adopted a “mulatto” category for the U.S. Census between 1870 and1920.

Saperstein and University of Oregon’s Aaron Gullickson noted that people categorized as “mulatto” in one census were re-categorized as Black in the next census, particularly when Southern men’s occupational status changed “downward” between censuses.

Like clothing, another non-racial factor – cause of death – influences racial classification, and can bias official U.S. statistics, according to Penner and UC Irvine colleague
Andrew Noymer with Saperstein in their analysis of a representative sample of U.S. death certificates.

Andrew Noymer

Andrew Noymer

They controlled for existing statistical reports by interviewing decedents’ next-of-kin regarding cause of death and racial classification.

Noymer’s team reported significant discrepancies between the two racial classifications by cause of death, with cirrhosis decedents more likely to be recorded as Native American and homicide victims more likely to be recorded as Black.

These findings are another example of interaction between changeable indicators of social status and seemingly fixed characteristics like physical appearance of race – both in forming perceptions of others and in defining oneself.

-*How have you adjusted your self-categorization based on occupational role and status over time?

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Attractive Appearance Helps Men Gain Business Funding – But Not Women?

Laura Huang

Laura Huang

Entrepreneurs create jobs and contribute to economic growth with support of early investment by financial backers, who determine funding decisions based on the perceived business proposal viability and founders’ previous experience.

Alison Wood Brooks

Alison Wood Brooks

However, there are additional unacknowledged and perhaps implicit criteria for new venture-funding: Gender and physical attractiveness, according to Harvard’s Alison Wood Brooks, Laura Huang of Wharton, MIT’s Sarah Wood Kearney and Fiona E. Murray.

Sarah Wood Kearney

Sarah Wood Kearney

Brooks and colleagues enlisted 60 experienced investors to:

  • Evaluate videos of 90 randomly-selected presentations by entrepreneurs at three pitch contests in the US
  • Comment on presenters’ appearance and effectiveness.
Fiona E. Murray

Fiona E. Murray

Male presenters who were rated more attractive were 36% more likely to receive funding than men judged as less attractive, but there was no difference in funding rates for women based on attractiveness ratings.

In a separate study, investors evaluated identical pitches delivered by a man or a woman, and rated male-narrated pitches as more persuasive, logical and fact-based than the same presentation delivered by a woman.

Besides suggesting a bias favoring attractive appearance, these finding suggest that financial backers favor male entrepreneurs, leaving women entrepreneurs – attractive or not – at a disadvantage in creating new businesses, jobs, and economic growth.

This finding underscores financial backers’ preference for male entrepreneurs’ proposals, based on attractive men’s greater perceived persuasiveness than women or less attractive men.

Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike

Previous blog posts have noted the “halo effect” of physical attractiveness leading to positive attributions of intelligence, competence, and likeability, originally described by Columbia’s Edward Thorndike.

Team Woods’ latest findings point to the double advantage enjoyed by attractive men seeking new venture funding.
Aspiring women entrepreneurs, on the other hand, continue to encounter significant unacknowledged disadvantages, not improved by physical attractiveness.

Eleanor Holly Buttner

Eleanor Holly Buttner

These findings were not confirmed by University of North Carolina’s E. Holly Buttner and Benson Rosen in their investigation of bank loan officers’ funding decisions.

Loan officers, who typically make funding decisions based on the business plan and interview with the entrepreneur, evaluated a:

  • Business plan or
  • Business plan plus a videotaped interview conducted by a loan officer with a male or female entrepreneur seeking a loan to start a business.
Benson Rosen

Benson Rosen

Bankers rated their likelihood of:

  • Recommending loan approval of the requested amount
  • Making a counteroffer of a smaller amount, which they specified.

This study found no difference in funding decisions for male entrepreneurs compared with female entrepreneurs presenting the same business case.
In fact, loan officers made larger counteroffers to the female entrepreneur when they considered both the business plan and the loan application interview.

Student volunteers’ loan funding decisions were compared with loan professionals, and the younger generation of financial lay people made larger counteroffers to the male entrepreneur instead of the female when they evaluated both the business plan and the loan interview,
Loan officers, in contrast, made significantly more cautious and conservative funding decisions than student participants.

Buttner and Benson recommended that female entrepreneurs ask to meet with loan officers to present their business proposals because this personal contact resulted in more successful funding of requested loans.

John Becker-Blease

John Becker-Blease

Another source of funding is “angel investors,” and Oregon State University’s John R. Becker-Blease and Jeffrey E. Sohl of University of New Hampshire found no difference in funding for male and female entrepreneurs.
They noted that women seek private investments substantially lower rates than men, but they are equally likely to receive investment.

However, when the “angels” are women, female entrepreneurs are more likely to seek financing and are as likely to receive the requested funding.

Jeffrey Sohl

Jeffrey Sohl

Team Woods’ findings suggest that women entrepreneurs may still face obstacles in starting new ventures,  a barrier seemly shared with less attractive males.

-*How do you mitigate biases based on gender or attractiveness when asking for funding – for a business, initiative, or idea?

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Anxiety Undermines Negotiation Performance

Maurice Schweitzer

Maurice Schweitzer

Anxious negotiators make lower first offers, exit earlier, and earn lower profits than less anxious people due to their “low self-efficacy” beliefs, according to Harvard’s Alison Wood Brooks and Maurice E. Schweitzer of University of Pennsylvania,

Alison Wood Brooks

Alison Wood Brooks

Brooks and Schweitzer induced anxious feelings or neutral reactions during continuous “shrinking-pie” negotiation tasks.
Compared with negotiators experiencing neutral feelings, negotiators who feel anxious typically expect to achieve lower profits, present more cautious offers, and respond more cautiously to propositions presented by negotiation counterparts.

Anxious negotiators who achieved poor bargaining outcomes typically did not manage emotions with a cognitive strategies including:

Julie Norem

Julie Norem

  • Strategic optimism, indicated by expecting positive outcomes without anxiety or detailed reflection, according to University of Miami’s Stacie Spencer and Julie Norem of Wellesley
  • Reattribution, identified by considering alternate interpretations of events to increase optimism and self-efficacy beliefs
  • Defensive pessimism, marked by high motivation toward achievement coupled with negative expectations for future challenges, leading to increased effort and preparation, according to Wellesley College’s Julie Norem and Edward Chang of University of Michigan.
Edward Chang

Edward Chang

Norem and Cantor concluded that defensive pessimists performed worse when “encouraged by telling them that that based on their academic performance, they should expect to perform well on anagram and puzzle tasks.

Among university students, defensive pessimism was related to lower self-esteem, self-criticism, pessimism, and discounting previous successful performances when they began university studies, according to Norem and Brown’s Jasmina Burdzovic Andreas.

Jasmina Burdzovic Andreas

Jasmina Burdzovic Andreas

However, their longitudinal study demonstrated that self-esteem increased to almost the same levels as optimists during their four years of university study.
Pessimists’ precautionary countermeasures may have resulted in strong performance, which built credible self-esteem.

In contrast to general pessimism, defensive pessimism is not characterized by an internal, global, and stable attribution style linked to depression and less proactive problem-solving behavior.
Defensive pessimism’s positive performance outcomes suggest that this cognitive strategy is an effective, if uncomfortable, approach to managing anxiety and performance motivation.

-*How do you manage anxiety in high-stakes negotiations?

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Are You Excited Yet? Anxiety as Positive “Excitement” to Improve Performance

Alison Wood Brooks

Alison Wood Brooks

People can improve performance in tasks as varied as public speaking, mathematical problem solving, and karaoke singing, by reappraising anxiety as “excitement,” according to Harvard’s Alison Wood Brooks.

Using silent self-talk messages like “I am excited” or reading self-direction messages like “Get excited!” fosters an “opportunity mind-set” by increasing “congruence” between physical arousal experience and situational appraisal.

Michael Eysenck

Michael Eysenck

Unlike “excitement,” anxiety drains working memory capacity, decreases self-confidence, self-efficacy, and performance for non-experts before or during a task, according to Michael W. Eysenck of Unversity of London.

Further, trying to counteract anxiety with “calm” is difficult and usually ineffective because it represents a large shift from negative emotion to neutral or positive emotion and from physiological activation to low arousal levels, noted Brooks.

Stefan Hofmann

Stefan Hofmann

In addition, efforts to “calm” physiological arousal during anxiety can result in a paradoxical increase in the suppressed, warded-off emotion, reported Stefan Hofmann of Boston University and colleagues.
However, most people in Woods’ studies still believed that the best way to handle anxiety is to increase calmness, whether for themselves or for a co-worker.

Jeremy Jamieson

Jeremy Jamieson

In contrast to the usually-unpleasant experience of anxiety, “excitement” is typically viewed as a positive, pleasant emotion that can improve performance, according to Harvard’s Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues.

Anxiety and excitement have similar physiological arousal profiles, but different effects on performance.

Stanley Schachter

Stanley Schachter

This can lead to mislabeling and confusing the two experiences, demonstrated in much-cited studies by Columbia’s Stanley Schacter and Jerome Singer of SUNY.
Anxiety’s similarity to excitement can be used to advantage by intentionally relabeling uncomfortably high “anxiety” as pleasant “excitement” to mitigate anxiety’s negative impact on performance.

Jerome Singer

Jerome Singer

Brooks provoked anxiety by telling volunteers that they would present an impromptu, videotaped speech.

For some participants, she moderated anxiety by mentioning that it is “normal” to feel discomfort or fear and asked them to “take a realistic perspective on this task, by recognizing that there is no reason to feel anxious” and “the situation does not present a threat to you…there are no negative consequences to be concerned with.”
She also told volunteers to say aloud randomly-assigned self-statements like “I am excited.”

People who stated I am excitedbefore their speech were rated as more persuasive, more competent more confident, and more persistent (spoke longer), than participants who said “I am calm.”

Brooks evaluated peoples’ reactions to another anxiety-provoking task, performing a karaoke song for an audience and rated by program’s voice recognition software for “singing accuracy” based on:

  • Volume (quiet-loud)
  • Pitch (distance from true pitch)
  • Note duration (accuracy of breaks between notes).

This score determined participants’ payment for participating in the study.

Before performing, she asked participants to make a randomly-assigned self-statement:

  • “I am anxious”
  • “I am excited”
  • “I am calm”
  • “I am angry”
  • “I am sad”
  • No statement.

Following their performance, volunteers rated their anxiety, excitement, and confidence in their singing ability.
People who said that they were “excited” had higher pulse rates than other groups, confirming that self-statements can affect physical experiences of emotion.

In addition, volunteers who said “I am excited” has the highest scores for singing accuracy and also for “singing self-efficacy” – confidence in singing skill.

In contrast, those who said, “I am anxious had the lowest scores for singing accuracy, suggesting that focus on anxiety is associated with lower performance.

Brooks elicited anxiety on “a very difficult IQ test…under time pressure” that would determine their payment for participation.
To evoke further anxiety, she concluded, “Good luck minimizing your loss.”

Before the test, participants read a statement:

  • “Try to remain calm” or
  • “Try to get excited.”

Those instructed to “get excited” produced more correct answers than those who tried to “remain calm.”

Across these anxiety-provoking tasks encountered in daily life – public speaking, cognitive tasks, creative performance – reappraising anxiety as “excitement” increased the subjective experience of “excitement” instead of anxiety, and improved subsequent performance.

Because reappraisal as “excitement” is congruent with physiological arousal common to both anxiety and excitement, volunteers more readily endorsed the reappraisal than the “arousal incongruent” appraisal of calmness.

Stéphane Côté

Stéphane Côté

Inauthentic emotional displays can be physically and psychologically demanding, according to University of Toronto’s Stéphane Côté and Christopher Miners, but arousal-congruent reappraisal primed an “opportunity mind-set” and a stress-is-enhancing” mind-set, which enabled superior performance across different anxiety-arousing situations.

People have “profound control and influence …over our own emotions,” according to Woods.
She noted that “Saying “I am excited” represents a simple, minimal intervention…to prime an opportunity mind-set and improve performance…

Advising employees to say “I am excited” before important performance tasks or simply encouraging them to “get excited” may increase their confidence, improve performance, and boost beliefs in their ability to perform well in the future.”

 -*How effective have you found focusing on “excitement” instead of “calm” in managing anxiety?

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Universal Body Map Pinpoints Where Emotions are Experienced

Lauri Nummenmaa

Lauri Nummenmaa

Emotions are associated with physiological changes in specific body regions, such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, or startle response, according to Aalto University’s Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, and Riitta Hari, with Jari Hietanen of University of Tampere.

Enrico Glerean

Enrico Glerean

Nummenmaa and team showed emotion-laden words, videos, facial expressions and stories to more than 700 participants in Finland, Sweden and Taiwan, who then reported body regions that “felt different” after they viewed the emotion-evoking media.

Riitta Hari

Riitta Hari

Many people described the physical experience of emotions with metaphors including:

  • “Cold feet” to signal hesitation
  • “Heartbroken” to describe disappointment
  •  “Shivers down the spine” to indicate fear,
Jari Hietanen

Jari Hietanen

according to Durham University’s Zoltán Kövecses, Gary B. Palmer then of University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Rene Dirven then of University of Duisburg-Essen.

Zoltán Kövecses

Zoltán Kövecses

Nummenmaa’s team controlled for these linguistic representations by evoking emotional experiences with guided mental imagery from:

Then, volunteers reported bodily sensations they experienced during the emotion induction and rated physical sensations they expected people displaying different emotions would experience in their bodies.

Nummenmaa and colleagues found distinctly different body areas associated with emotional experiences of happiness, contempt, love, and other feelings, with consistent results across nationalities.
They represented regions of greatest sensation associated with specific emotions with a computer-generated topographical body map.

The team proposed that emotions are represented as “culturally universal categorical somatotopic maps,” and sensing emotion-triggered bodily changes is required to perceive basic and complex emotions.Somatopic Emotion Map

Top row displays “basic” emotions:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • SurpriseBottom row displays “complex” emotions:
    • Anxiety
    • Love
    • Depression
    • Contempt
    • Pride
    • Shame
    • Envy

Happiness was a “full-body experience,” with increased sensation throughout the body, but some emotions were experienced in specific regions.

Christian Keysers

Christian Keysers

Likewise, most basic emotions, like anger and fear were associated with sensations of elevated activity in the upper chest area, corresponding to changes in breathing and heart rate, reported University of Groningen’s Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola with Jon H. Kaas of Vanderbilt.

Valeria Gazzola

Valeria Gazzola

In addition, all evoked emotions increased sensations in the head, reflecting changes in the facial area by muscle activation, skin temperature, tearing, and thoughts of emotional events.

Jon Kaas

Jon Kaas

Approach-oriented emotions,” including anger and happiness, were associated with increased upper limb sensation whereas depression was linked to decreased limb activity and sensation.
Disgust was felt in the digestive system and around the throat.

Positive emotions, including happiness, love, and pride, clustered in one group.
In contrast negative emotions diverged into four separate groups based on linguistic analysis and sensed body location:

  • Anger and fear
  • Anxiety and shame
  • Sadness and depression
  • Disgust, contempt, and envy.

Surprise was seen as neither a negative nor a positive emotion, yet it was distinctly different from neutral emotion.

Emotional metaphors appear connected to actual physiological experience of emotions, even when researchers controlled for familiar linguistic stereotypes and “conventional wisdom.”

-*What discrepancies have you observed between emotion descriptions and physical experience of emotion?

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