You’re at the newsagents on a Saturday afternoon about to buy ten pounds worth of lottery tickets, but your friend’s look of alarm makes you think again – the risk of losing all that money for no gain, just isn’t worth it. This ability for other people’s emotional expressions to affect our own risk taking – a form of “social referencing” – is surprisingly under researched in psychology. There’s some developmental research on the topic (babies are more likely to crawl across a raised, transparent surface – a visual cliff – when their mother is smiling at them from the other side), but not so much with adults.
For this new study, Brian Parkinson and his team at Oxford University used a computer game that simulated the inflation of a balloon. Twenty pairs of male friends and 20 pairs of female friends took part. One member of each pair inflated an on-screen balloon with successive presses of a keyboard key. Meanwhile their partner’s face was visible as they watched events via a silent, live videolink. The balloon inflater and his or her partner earned points (or avoided losing them) for each successive inflation. They could choose to bank their points after each puff. But if the balloon was inflated too much, it burst and no points were earned (or all points were lost). This process was repeated several times with new balloons. Points could later be exchanged for a cash reward. Another twist was that the partner who was doing the watching was either free to express their facial expressions of anxiety or they were instructed to keep a sraight face.
When the participants were playing the balloon game to win points (rather than to avoid losing them), the expression of anxiety by their partner made a significant difference. That is, the balloon inflaters tended to be more careful about over-inflating the balloon if they could see the look of anxiety on their partner’s face, as compared with when he or she was keeping a straight face. Moreover, balloon inflaters with more emotionally expressive partners (regardless of whether they’d been instructed to keep a straight face or not) tended to take fewer risks, whether they were playing to win points, or avoid losing them. Partners’ emotional expressivity had been assessed earlier with a questionnaire with items like “When I feel positive, people can see exactly how I’m feeling.”
The researchers said they’d shown that a person’s risk taking is increased when a watching friend suppresses their facial expression of anxiety. “Such a finding has obvious implications for the interpersonal emotion regulation of advisors or counsellors intervening in real world decision making situations,” the researchers concluded.
Parkinson, B., Phiri, N., and Simons, G. (2012). Bursting with anxiety: Adult social referencing in an interpersonal Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0026434