Emotional egocentrism: how emotional experience affects the perception of other people’s emotions

Emotional egocentrism: how emotional experience affects the perception of other people’s emotions

To orient ourselves in social interactions with other individuals, to understand their mood, as well as their behaviors, it is necessary to rely on indirect clues, since we are precluded from having access to the direct source: their mind .


Advertising message Generally, it is possible to rely on contextual clues, or rather the interpretation of the situation in which the action takes place, to discern with discrete likelihood what the other person can prove and deduce or predict his behavior; another method of investigation that the human being has perfected over the course of evolution is the ability to interpret emotional states starting from the expressions of the face of the counterpart, an operation facilitated by the relative inter-individual and cross-cultural regularity of primary emotions ( fear, anger, sadness, happiness, surprise and disgust), of intuitive adaptive value, and of some emotions called secondary (fun, contempt, contentment, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride, relief, satisfaction, sensory pleasure, shame),

However, some research in the field of social cognition has shown that not only external clues, such as contextual or other people’s expressions, but also internal clues, such as the emotional state of the same person who is judging the situation, are taken into more or less explicit consideration in the attribution of meaning and in guiding the predictions of individuals (Silani et al., 2013; Steinbeis & Singer, 2014), a phenomenon that has been called Emotional Egocentrism.

When asked to express emotional judgments about themselves and another individual, in congruent or incongruent situations, for example undergoing both a pleasant tactile stimulation or where one received a pleasant stimulation and the other an annoying stimulation, the individuals showed a constant bias towards one’s emotional state, demonstrating an inevitable tendency to project one’s emotion onto the other, making their judgments less accurate.

The results of these studies which, it should be emphasized, precluded the possibility of seeing firsthand the reaction of the other to the stimulation undergone and were based only on the contextual description, were interpreted as a difficulty in discriminating the self / other articulation in terms of representation of emotional states (Hoffman et al., 2016; Silani et al., 2013; Tomova et al., 2014).

Other studies, which instead included the possibility of witnessing the counterpart’s emotional expressions to make the judgment, found that it was easier to correctly recognize the emotions of others when they were congruent with that experienced contextually by the judge (Qiao-Tasserit et al., 2017; Schmid & Schmidmast, 2010): in this case, the results were interpreted as evidence that the emotional states experienced by the subject activated the corresponding memory representations, effectively acting as facilitators in the recognition and cognitive processing of congruent information with them (Forgas, 2017). However, an alternative explanation could again be that of a bias in attributing one’s mental states to others,

Advertising message The subjects were first exposed to a combination of autobiographical memories evoked by themselves and audiovisual clips created by the experimenters, with the aim of eliciting in them a certain emotion (happiness, sadness or neutral). Subsequently, the participants were asked to indicate if the images that were shown to them depicted expressions of happiness or sadness: the faces presented were actually configured as ambiguous figures, that is, created ad hoc by the experimenters by mixing the features of happy or sad faces from the FACES Database (Ebner et al., 2010). At each subsequent trial, the face shown presented 5% more of the emotion contrary to that just identified by the subject, decreasing on an imaginary scale in the continuum between happiness and sadness: for example, if the face was correctly identified as sadness, the next one would show 5% more happiness, “diluting” the sadness further to a point (reversal point) where the participant stopped perceiving the sadness starting to perceive happiness . After reaching the reversal point eight times the ladder ended.

Lastly, the participants completed questionnaires aimed at collecting demographic information as well as dispositional indices of empathy, measured through two scales of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (empathic concern and prospective taking) and any characteristic features of the autism spectrum, which were associated in the scientific literature to a defect in the recognition of emotions and characterized by greater self-centeredness in cognitive mentalization tasks.

The results confirmed the existence of the Emotional Egocentrism bias, i.e. that the perception of emotions was actually influenced by the emotional state of the participants and that the emotion felt by the subjects was a significant predictor of the emotion perceived in the faces that were shown to them. Furthermore, it was found that a greater trend in prospective taking, measured with the questionnaire on empathy, correlated with a lower influence of the bias of Emotional Egocentrism, limiting the extent to which the emotion felt by the subject influenced his judgment about the states emotional feelings of others and in fact pointing out how it is linked to social cognition skills. A recent meta-analysis (Israelashvili et al., 2019) seems to support these data by finding a positive association between the individual disposition to prospective taking and greater accuracy in the recognition of emotions, interpreted as a greater attention focused on the “other” during the process of inference about mental states, which minimizes the interference of one’s emotional state in this process. Lastly, an association was excluded between Emotional Egocentrism and the traits of the autistic spectrum, which seem incapable of contrasting the bias of egocentrism, as well as with the index of empathic concern, which seems to support previous studies that associate this trait with bias. of altercentric attribution, i.e. of a nature mirroring the egocentric ones (Hoffmann et al. 2016).

Future studies should aim to extend the results obtained, for example by adopting a more ecological paradigm that does not limit the participants’ choice options to just two emotions, as it would be desirable to provide a control group that expresses judgments of a non-emotional nature despite having been subjected to preliminary emotional induction.