New Study: How Groups Can Influence Your Emotions

New Study: How Groups Can Influence Your Emotions

Yang QuYang Qu

People we identify with can have a more powerful influence on our emotions than those we don’t relate to, according to new research co-authored by Northwestern University developmental psychologist Yang Qu.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS), looked at the impact both like-minded and dissimilar people have on an individual’s emotion and their brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers found that the brain can track how emotions are influenced by the different groups and that the effect may be a shared phenomenon across cultures.

“In an increasingly globalized world, examining the influence different types of groups have on emotion processing is a step forward for improving intergroup emotional understanding,” said Qu, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Previous studies have helped scientists understand the brain science behind the role of social influence in music ratings and facial attractiveness. But much less is known about how people both in and out of our social circles influence the way we process emotions, and whether our brains can track information from two groups – people like us and people not like us.

In the PNAS study, the researchers asked 45 American and Chinese volunteers to rate images showing people expressing different emotions. The participants then viewed the same images during an MRI scan and were given information about how other people felt about them. Then they rated the images again.

They found participants shifted their emotions to be more in alignment with the people they identified with compared with those they didn’t relate to. They also found that the neural activity in brain regions implicated in reward-seeking, perspective taking, and emotion detection tracked changes in participants' emotions.

The researchers also examined cultural differences in behavior and neural levels since greater emphasis on group harmony in East Asian culture could make Chinese participants more likely to conform to the group they identify with, compared with more individualistic Western individuals.

But, echoing past research, the team found that Chinese and American participants showed similarities at both the behavioral and neural levels, “suggesting that the intergroup influence on one’s emotional experience may be universal,” Qu said.

The study “Intergroup social influence on emotion processing in the brain” was coauthored by Lynda Lin, a graduate student at the University of Illinois; and Eva Telzer, director of the Developmental Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 11/15/18