A series of recent studies suggests that people consistently underestimate the prevalence with which others experience negative emotions – and that this error may lead to increased loneliness, more brooding over personal problems, and decreased life satisfaction.
The authors of these studies propose at least two reasons why individuals may underestimate the frequency with which others experience negative emotions. First, individuals may be more likely to experience negative than positive emotions in private. Since we are only able to directly observe others’ emotional expression during social situations, we may mistakenly infer that our peers are always as happy as they are when they are with us. Second, people may be more likely to hide negative emotions from others compared to positive ones. Thus, even if an individual experiences a negative emotion in a social situation, he or she may refrain from expressing it.
The authors tested these predictions by asking undergraduate students to list three negative and three positive personal emotional experiences from the past two weeks. Consistent with the authors’ predictions, participants were almost twice as likely to report that a negative emotional experience occurred in private compared to a positive one, and were three times more likely to report intentionally hiding a negative emotion from others. Furthermore, participants reported that they were less likely to talk to others about a negative emotional experience after the fact.
In another study, the authors show that while participants underestimated the prevalence with which others experience negative emotions, this was not the case for positive emotional experiences. In fact, participants thought that their peers were going out with friends and attending parties more than they actually were. These errors occurred even with the lure of a $50 prize motivating participants to be as accurate as possible in their predictions, and even when participants were asked to make these judgments about close friends.
In a final study, the authors show that these social-cognitive perceptual errors may have an adverse affect on mental health. Participants who rated the negative emotional experiences of others as less frequent reported experiencing more loneliness and rumination. Ratings of others’ positive emotional experiences as more frequent predicted decreased life satisfaction.
Taken together, the results of these studies show that it may be useful to remember that we are not as alone in our emotional troubles as we think. Sharing our negative emotional experiences with others may encourage them to do the same, and this may do all of us some good.