Out darkness into lightDarkness has enveloped the connection between emotion and persuasion for a long time. But, thanks to a team of Dutch researchers, a new dawn now illuminates that connection in the world of social influence. Emotions have been used for centuries by lawyers and others interested in the art of persuasion and evoking certain emotions to frame arguments and manipulate opinion. Yet, according to the authors of recent article about their ground-breaking research, we have largely been in the dark when it comes to understanding the interpersonal effects of emotions on attitude formation and change. The gate has been opened by these investigators.  Their research results show that emotional information can exert powerful influence in the realm of persuasion – attitude formation and attitude change.  Motivated lawyers will seek to understand and find ways to leverage the practical applications of this new learning.

Researchers recently investigated how and under what conditions individuals use the information in others’ expressions of happiness, sadness, and anger to form or change attitudes. Through this important study, psychological science has shed new light on the processes through which and the circumstances under which people come to adapt their attitudes, cognitions, or behaviors when influenced by the emotional expressions of others.

Lawyers who have an interest in persuasion no longer have to labor in darkness.  We just need to harness ourselves to this new learning, stay alert for future developments as this research stream grows, and go forward with persuasion strategies and tactics armed perhaps with better focus and more purpose.

This post highlights the research background, briefly describes the research and outlines the main findings from the five studies, notes some salient discussion points made by the authors, and closes with take-aways for lawyers and suggests how emotional intelligence may have a role.

Research Background:  The “Darkness” – Emotion and Persuasion.  Psychological science has investigated the role of emotions in attitudes and persuasion for decades.  The authors describe this as a “long history”.  But this research stream has focused on the recipient’s emotional state and its influence on the persuasive message.  This past research has illuminated just one aspect of the mechanisms and contingencies involved – the intrapersonal effects of affective states on persuasion.  The authors, in positioning their argument for their studies, stated “we are still largely in the dark with respect to the interpersonal influence of emotions on attitude formation and change – that is, how a source’s emotional expressions influence the attitudes of others who observe those expressions.”

Paucity, according to the authors, describes the state of research about the contribution of the source’s emotional information to the persuasive message. They added “It is unclear, however, whether expressing emotions contributes to or undermines successful persuasion.”  The leader author developed a theoretical model of emotions and social influence called EASI (emotions as social information).  A brief summary of this model and how it connects to the research appears below after first covering some definitions.  The researchers designed their study to shine light on the other, interpersonal, side of persuasion.

Research Background:  Attitudes.  An attitude involves evaluation of things, people, groups, or ideas – “objects”.  The authors defined “attitude” for purposes of their research as “temporary evaluations that are constructed based on a combination of stored representations of an attitude object and information that is currently at hand.”  Attitudes, while relatively stable, can change or vary as a result of cues from our environment.  One process of such change involves influence attempts.

Research Background:  Emotions.  This research involved the interpersonal effects of emotions.  The investigators chose certain basic emotions:  happiness, sadness, and anger.  People tend to have high accuracy in recognizing these emotions.  A number of definitions of “emotion” exist.  The authors chose a consensus viewpoint, and defined emotions as “comparatively short-lived, differentiated, and intense responses to events that are appraised as relevant to a particular concern or goal, which are directed toward a specific stimulus and are characterized by distinct subjective experiences, physiological reactions, expressions, and action tendencies.”

Emotion expressions provide informational cues about attitude objects – people, things, and ideas.  These inherent signals can relate to favorable versus unfavorable situations (valence) or strength or weakness (arousal).  An observer may incorporate this information from the expression of emotion of another person in his or her attitude in relation to the object.  The attitudes developed by observers of these expressions, according to the authors, “are congruent with the evaluative information that is inherent in the source’s emotional expression.”

Research Background:  EASI – Emotions as Social Information Theory.  Emotions influence the the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of the people who experience them.  As early as Darwin, however, emotion theorists have known that emotions also have important social functions.  Citing a line of modern research which goes forward from the 1990s, the authors noted that this means that emotions influence not only the people who experience them, but also those who observe them.  Others’ emotions help us navigate our ambiguous social world.  The EASI model’s processes help us process and understand the cues provided by the information in others’ emotional expressions.    

EASI modelThe lead author conceived the EASI (emotions as social information) theoretical model (image from additional resource article noted below).  This model operationalizes the premise that just as information in emotional expression provides valuable information to the self, “emotional expressions provide information to observers, which may influence their cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors.”  This approach goes beyond how our own emotions affect us and explores how one person’s emotions influence another’s feelings, thoughts, and actions.  A brief explanation of the EASI, using information from the lead author’s EASI webpage, follows.

Emotional expressions shape behavior and regulate social life.  Two big things happen under this theoretical model.  Others’ emotions elicit affective reactions in the targets, i.e. us (e.g., reciprocal emotions, sentiments about the expresser).  The second process concerns inferences.  Others’ em0tions trigger our inferential processes (e.g., inferences about the source, meaning, and implications of the expresser’s emotion).  The observer, i.e. target, plays a role in the model, too.  The relative strength of the two processes depends on the target’s information processing abilities, e.g. as determined by time pressure, cognitive load, and on social-contextual factors, i.e. motivation. “The deeper individuals’ processing, the more likely they are to incorporate the informational value of other people’s emotional expressions into their attitudes.”

Research Hypotheses.  Based upon the foregoing considerations, the authors tested two (2) general hypotheses in this research:  (1) Observers incorporate evaluative information from sources’ emotional expressions and develop attitudes that are congruent with that information; and (2) The degree to which the observer engages in more thorough information processing of the sources emotional expressions impacts the interpersonal effects of the source’s emotional expressions.  The second hypothesis considers the potential influence of the observer’s information-processing ability and motivation.

Research Method:  Attitude Objects, Manipulations, Measures, and Comparisons.  Five separate experiments tested the hypotheses noted above.  This part of the post notes only selected aspects.

Undergraduate students participated.  The research examined various attitude objects, and included banning bobsleighing from the Olympics, discontinuing a TV show, introducing a new Olympic sport, Greenpeace, and discussing the nature of the content of a college curriculum.  These scenarios ranged in importance and emotional content. The researchers manipulated emotional expressions by using written words, pictures of facial expressions, film clips, and emoticons.  The emotional expression manipulations fit the situation.

The participants described their opinions about the objects by responding to scales designed by the investigators to measure positive and negative evaluations. One study involved a cognitive load variable.  A memory test introduced this variable.  Another study included motivation.  This study included a scale which measures a person’s desire to develop a rich understanding of situations and to process all available information for that purpose. Three studies compared happiness and sadness.  Two involved comparisons between happiness and anger.

EASI source-targetResults of Experiments. Without detailing the particulars of the nuanced manipulations, or the descriptive statistics and analyses performed by them, a summary of the results obtained by the investigators regarding the effects of emotional information in interpersonal relations on attitude formation and attitude change follows:

  • The information inherent in a source’s emotional  expressions can influence an observer’s attitude
  • Comparisons which showed that participants reported significantly more positive attitudes after reading a newspaper article in which a source expressed sadness rather than happiness and participants reported significantly less negative attitudes after reading an article in which a sources expressed sadness rather than happiness support the conclusion that expressions of happiness and sadness by the source, not the object, have opposite effects on attitude formation
  • When participants had a low cognitive load (information-processing capacity, i.e. working memory, not undermined), rather than high, they (no effects of gender) reported a more positive attitude about the subject, i.e. introducing a new Olympic sport, after seeing a happy rather than sad facial expression
  • The conclusion that emotional expressions of a source do influence preexisting attitudes about an object has support from findings from comparison of expressions of happiness and anger in that participants reported more positive attitudes towards an object, e.g. Greenpeace, after seeing a news bulletin containing happy as opposed to angry expressions; participants reported more negative attitudes about Greenpeace after seeing angry rather than happy expressions
  • Comparing happy and angry expressions, emotional expressions about a person’s attitudes can bring about attitude change in that to the extent that participants had a high motivation disposition to fully process emotional information, expressions of anger (about voting behavior related to curriculum content materials) engendered more positive attitude change than expressions of happiness

Happy sad comparison

Discussion of Results and Take-Aways for Lawyers.  This research, based on social-functional perspectives of emotion and on EASI theory, tested the idea and the results from five studies showed “that individuals use the evaluative information inherent in others’ emotional expressions to inform their own attitudes, but only when they are motivated and able to process this information.”  The bulk of research and learning about persuasion and emotions concerns how individuals’ moods and emotions affect their own attitudes.  This research, however, turned an important corner.

The investigators noted that “the present research illuminates how one person’s emotional expressions may affect another’s attitudes.”  The profound theoretical implications of the conclusion that people use the emotional expressions of others to inform their own attitudes get to this point – “emotions should not be treated as irrelevant or peripheral cues but should be incorporated in our theorizing as informative social signals that help individuals makes sense of social situations and that inform their attitudes.” This post does not discuss the strengths, limitations, and suggestions for future research.  Instead, this final part looks at some important practical applications and related suggestions.

According to the authors, the findings of their research – “people use the emotional expressions of others as information when forming attitudes about various topics” – suggest that “interpersonal emotional strategies may be added to the social influence toolbox.”  They add,

“This simple notion has interesting practical and professional implications. The persuasive power of emotional expressions could be wielded by . . . lawyers . . . mediators . . . and other professionals who frequently deal with emotions and/or strive to change people’s opinions or behaviors, although it remains to be seen whether emotional expressions also have the power to influence firmly held beliefs.”

Emotional Intelligence Connection. This research did not involve lawyers nor did it involve emotional intelligence.  However, the effects of the information contained in the sources’ emotional expressions occurred when expressed in words, through facial displays (e.g. cheerful looks or frowns), by means of emoticons, or by combinations of facial, verbal, or vocal cues.  Abilities related to perceiving and understanding emotion clearly come into play in this emotion-laden strategy of social influence and attitude formation or change.

Lawyers who desire to come out of the darkness and add this EASI-based strategy of influence and attitude change will do well to become familiar with and develop and strengthen their emotional abilities, skills, and competencies.  Those who take the time and make such efforts will no doubt enhance their opportunities for success in the emotional influence strategies noted by the researchers. Those who do not will probably not gain full advantage of the new social influence strategy described by the authors.  Those lawyers, judges, and mediators who lag behind or fail to develop and grow emotional intelligence skills and abilities of emotion recognition and emotion understanding likely will not “wield the power” of the emotions as social information interpersonal influence strategy and “the persuasive power of emotional expressions.”  Agree?  Our community will appreciate your comments.

Thank You

Thank you very much. Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices | Web – www.adlitemsolutions.com| Email: dan@adlitemsolutions.com| Blog – www.psycholawlogy.com | Combining and leveraging 25+ years legal experience, a Master of Science in Organizational Development Psychology, and educationally qualified or earned certifications in industry-leading normal and special business personality, emotional intelligence, leadership, and stress management assessments and tools to partner with clients to discover, design, develop, deliver, and evaluate custom interventions for individual, team, project, or organizational solutions. | Mission:  “America’s leading resource for emotional intelligence assessment, coaching, training, and workshops for judges, lawyers, law schools, bar associations, and other legal services providers and their organizations and leaders.”  Please visit again soon.

Article Source:  Van Kleef, G. A., van den Berg, H., & Heerdink, M. W. (2015). The persuasive power of emotions: Effects of emotional expressions on attitude formation and change. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(4), 1124-1142. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000003.  Copy of article currently available here.  For those interested in learning more about the social functional approach model used in this research study, check out the EASI (Emotion as Social Information) laboratory webpage of the lead author from the Department of Social Psychology, University of Amsterdam, here.

Additional Resource:  For further reading, access to Van Kleef, G. A. (2009). How emotions regulate social life:  The emotions as social information (EASI) model. Current Directions in Psychological Science,18(3), 184-188 (a very readable, short article about the theoretical model used in this research study) currently available here.

Image Credits:  Out of darkness into light here | EASI model diagram here | EASI source-target here | Happy-sad comparison here

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.
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