Have you ever had the feeling that everyone else seems so sorted, so at ease? You look about you and see friends chatting over lunch, people laughing on their mobiles, others escaping contentedly through novels or newspapers. According to Alexander Jordan and colleagues, most of us have such a tendency to underestimate other people’s experience of negative emotion. In turn the researchers think this skewed perception perpetuates a collective delusion in which we all strive to present an unrealistically happy front because we think that’s the norm.
Jordan’s team began their investigation by asking 63 undergrads to describe recent negative and positive emotional experiences they’d had. As expected, the negative examples (e.g. had an argument; was rejected by a boy/girl), more than the positive examples (e.g. attended a fun party; had a great meal), tended to occur in private and to provoke emotions that the students had attempted to suppress.
The most frequently cited of these experiences were then put to a separate set of 80 students whose task was to say how many times in the last two weeks they had lived through something similar, and to estimate how often their peers had. The important finding here was that the students consistently underestimated their peers’ experience of negative events (by an average of 17 per cent) whilst slightly over-estimating their peers’ experience of positive situations (by 5.6 per cent).
What about close friends – surely we have a more accurate sense of their emotional lives? A third study was based on emotional weekly blogs kept by over 200 students, which they used to rate their experience of various positive and negative emotions over the course of a term. Each blog student then nominated a close friend or romantic partner who had to estimate the range of emotions the blogger had experienced that term. Consistent with the study’s main message, close friends and partners tended to underestimate the bloggers’ experiences of negative emotions and to overestimate their experiences of positive emotions. A deeper analysis of the data suggested the underestimation of negative emotion was partly mediated by the bloggers’ deliberate suppression of their negative emotions.
A final study showed that students with a greater tendency to underestimate their peers’ negative emotions also tended to feel more lonely, less satisfied with life and to ruminate more, thus suggesting that underestimating others’ misery could be harmful to our own well-being. Of course the causal direction could run the other way (i.e. being lonely and discontented could predispose us to think everyone else is happier than they are), or both ways. The researchers acknowledged more research is needed to test this.
Assuming the present results can be replicated, an enduring mystery is why we continue to underestimate other people’s misery whilst knowing full well that most of our own negative experiences happen in private, and that we frequently put on a brave, happy face when socialising. Why don’t we reason that other people do the same? Jordan and his colleagues think this is probably part of an established phenomenon in psychology – ‘the fundamental attribution error’ – in which people downplay the role of the situation when assessing other people’s behaviour compared with their own.
A fascinating implication of this research is that it could help explain the popularity of tragic art, be that in drama, music or books. ‘In fictional tragedy, people are given the opportunity to witness “the terrible things in life” that are ordinarily “played out behind the scenes”,’ the researchers said (quoting Checkhov), ‘which may help to depathologise people’s own negative emotional experiences.’
Jordan, A., Monin, B., Dweck, C., Lovett, B., John, O., and Gross, J. (2010). Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (1), 120-135 DOI:10.1177/0146167210390822