Processing Emotions

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Processing Emotions

Processing Emotions
Frederick J. Brigham

University of Virginia

Michele M. Brigham

Western Albemarle high School, Crozet, VA

University of Virginia

School of Continuing Education and Professional Studies

February, 2004

Processing Emotions

Emotions are often discussed but are less often clearly defined. Few people would dispute their existence and influence on human behavior. Teachers often speak of individual students experiencing frustration in their schoolwork or as having depression or as being excited as well as experiencing many other attributes that are considered to be emotions. Sometimes, educators describe their own ability to communicate emotions and maintain a positive climate in their classrooms, or of the influence of a particular student or group of students. In this document, we discuss some of the problems that are associated with research on emotions, the current definitions of emotions, the ways in which emotions are communicated, and the ways that educators can employ knowledge of emotional indicators to enhance their classroom management and instruction.

Research on Emotion in Education

Students with social behavior that is unusually and persistently dysfunctional are considered to have disabilities under special education regulations. The currently preferred tem for this condition is “emotional or behaviorally disordered” (E/BD). Despite the clear linking of emotions to the disability condition in this term, the identification and treatment of children and youths with E/BD tends to focus on the behavioral rather than the emotional aspects of the condition.

The behavioral roots of most E/BD practitioners are partly responsible for the de-emphasis of emotion in the field of E/BD. Behaviorists do not deny emotions, but they do not believe that they can be studied with the present tools of science. Earlier attempts at the study of emotion in psychology were primarily linked with Freud and the psychodynamic schools of thought. By the later part of the 20th century, most scholars had come to consider the psychodynamic explanations offered by Freud to have failed (Dawes, 2001). Psychodynamic theories posit the existence of unseen operators within the human mind. With the failure of Freudian theories to consistently explain emotions, most psychologists turned away from the study of the unseen and inferential world of emotion to the observable world of behavior. Clearly the observable world of behavior is more compatible with most scientific research tools than is the subjective world of emotion (Schutz & DeCuir, 2002).

Other reasons for the emphasis on behavior over emotion include the difficulty in defining and studying emotions themselves and the ability of humans to suppress or inhibit emotional displays (Dalgleish, Matthews, & Wood, 1999). Unlike behaviors that are overt and, by definition, observable, emotions are most often covert and must be inferred by interpretation of various cues that are not actually emotions.

Defining Emotion

There is currently no widely accepted definition of emotion (Shaver, Wu, & Schwartz, 1992). Why should an aspect of human behavior be so commonly discussed and remain so poorly defined? Part of the problem is that “Everyone knows what an emotion is until asked to give a definition. Then it seems that no one knows” (Fehr & Russell, 1984, p. 464). Another part of the problem is that most often, emotions are defined in the same way as are colors. That is, emotions are characterized by prototypical exemplars or central indicators that are surrounded by an acceptable, albeit fuzzy, range of variability (Shaver et al., 1992).

Perhaps the best way to consider fuzzy categories is to liken them to the cards with paint chips of differing shades that can be found in most building supply stores. Almost everyone can identify the color blue but as one lightens the color blue, it becomes more and more like white; as one darkens the color blue, it become more like black. When, exactly, blue fades into white or to black is a more difficult to determine. By analogy, emotional indicators are, like colors, best considered as being on continua surrounding central indicators.

The Components of Emotional Expression

The expression of emotion is characterized by the various channels or tools that humans use as cues. Common cues discussed in emotional expression include: facial cues, vocal cues, body cues, verbal cues, physiological cues and so forth (Planalp, 1998). The next sections provide a brief description of the research supporting each of the major components.

Facial Cues

“In many people’s eyes emotional expression in nearly synonymous with facial cues…” (Planalp, 1998, p. 31). Facial expression can be examined holistically (e.g., which face in an array of photographs shows a given emotion) or more systematically using a variety of coding systems. The Facial Action Coding System (Ekman & Friesen, 1978) is probably the currently most popular of these systems. The FACS breaks facial expression into 44 specific action units as well as several head and eye positions (Rosenberg, 1997).

Facial expressions appear to be associated with universal affective states. People across cultures are able to correctly identify expressions of sadness and glee although the conditions that elicit such emotions are sometimes different between cultures.

Vocal Cues

Vocal cues are clearly part of emotional communication although they are not recognized as such as consistently as are facial cues (Planalp, 1998). Interpretation of most vocal cues is based on three dimensions: loudness, pitch, and time (Pittman & Scheer, 1993). By analyzing the combination of these three dimensions, researchers have found that five specific emotional dimensions: fear, disgust, joy, sadness, and anger can be identified by vocal cues. The specific patterns of loudness, pitch and time appear to be consistent for encoding or communicating emotion and for interpreting emotion. Most people listening to a speaker whose voice becomes louder and higher pitched at the same time that the tempo of the speech increases will interpret the speaker to be feeling anger. Joy is also associated with higher pitch in the voice, faster tempo in speech, and an increase in volume, but the interaction and relative intensity of these elements is what differentiates the cues associated with the respective emotions,

Body Cues

If little research has been conducted on vocal cues, even less has been conducted on the manifestation and interpretation of body cues to emotions (Planalp, 1998). Body cues are clearly part of the repertoire of emotional communication. People who walk with a rigid posture are rarely thought to be experiencing the same emotional states, as are those who skip or dance. Likewise, drooping postures and shuffling gaits convey a very different suggestion of emotion than an upright and swaggering posture. Body movements also carry a great deal of meaning in ceremonial and hierarchical interactions (Buck, 1984). The rules of parliamentary practice provide clear indications of when to stand, sit, pray, sing and listen silently. Anyone with a military background is probably well aware of the communicative value of body movement in hierarchical exchanges. Nevertheless, little systematic research has been conducted by manipulating body movements as target variables (Planalp, 1998).

Verbal Cues

Given the use of verbal tools thus far to describe nonverbal indicators of emotion, it should come as little surprise that emotion can be conveyed directly through verbal cues. Verbal cues can covey emotion directly through the meaning of the words chosen as well as indirectly through the manner in which the words are stated. For example, the statement “This is the most interesting discussion of this topic anywhere…” can be inflected to be an affirmation of the words, a refutation of the words, or a question. The use of varied vocal tones is one aspect of effective communication of emotion.

Another aspect of verbal cues is their ability to influence the perception of emotion both by the individual and those who observe him or her. For example, using euphemisms to minimize risks as do certain airline officials when they speak of “incidents” rather than accidents or crashes (Hochschild, 1983) or teachers explaining a child’s misbehavior as acting out of frustration carry different emotional loadings than a statement that an airplane crashed killing all aboard or a student cursed and overturned a desk. Unfavorable social situations can be altered with apologies that explain behavior with intricate verbal inventions. Additionally, the perception of risk can be increased through word choice (Showalter, 1997). Thus, in addition to content and tone, verbal cues can serve different emotional purposes.

The possession of a large lexicon of words for labeling and managing emotional states may be positively associated with more effective emotional communication. Classroom teachers have long been advised to learn different forms of verbal praise to support and affirm their students’ efforts. Students with E/BD, appear to have far more limited lexicons in general than do many of their nondisabled peers. This limitation appears in part to be associated with their identification as having E/BD (Hooper, Roberts, Zeisel, & Poe, 2003).


It is likely that only the most highly trained actors and mimes can isolate one emotional channel for use while holding all others neutral. Most people express emotions across combinations of the channels described above. Similarly, people rarely observe only one emotional channel to understand the emotions being expressed by another. Rather, most people consider information from more than one channel with the mode being four (Planalp, 1998). The most common cues are vocal, verbal, facial, and body movement with vocal being the most commonly reported cue. Most observers also report the use of context cues. Context cues are composed of facts used to understand an emotion (Planalp, 1998). For example, crying can have quite different meanings depending on whether it was observed on a wedding day or on the day the person lost his or her job.

Combinations of emotions are also employed frequently when observers attempt to label the emotions being experienced by another. Rather than employing only one word, most observers in Planalp’s research reported two or more. Sometimes the emotion words selected were from different categories of emotion suggested by Shaver, Wu, and Schwartz (1992) (e.g., fear, sadness, and anger). Choosing words from different categories was usually associated with negative emotional states, rather than positive emotional states. However, the choice of words from different emotional categories suggests that most people, at least on occasion, experience “mixed emotions” that cannot be adequately labeled with a single word.

Emotional Contagion

Thus far, this document has described emotions as individual responses to events or interpretations of others’ responses. Emotions, however, can be spread among occupants of a given environment. The term used to describe the spread of an emotional state from one individual to another is emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is defined as:

…the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1992 pp. 153-154).

Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson (1994) suggested that emotional contagion works through the previously described channels such that during interactions people tend to synchronize their facial expressions, vocal tones, body posture, etc. according to the behaviors exhibited by the other participant(s). The subjective experience of emotion by each individual is affected by the feedback from this mimicry that appears to be the basic mechanism by which people “catch” emotions from others. Much of the influence of this process is below the level of consciousness for most individuals. We tend to become aware of our shifting emotions only after the shift is well underway. Studying the processes of emotional contagion, however, may be a useful activity for educators who are often exposed to unpleasant emotional behavior during the discharge of their duties. By doing so, they may be better able to avoid acquiring negative emotions and also to encourage positive emotions on the part of the others around them.

Proposed Mechanisms of Emotional Contagion

Research exists (e.g., Öhman, 1999; Schachter & Singer, 1962) demonstrating that emotional interpretation of the same physiological states (e.g., rapid heartbeat and deep breathing) can be influenced by cognitive suggestion. That is, suggestions of threat or risk cause physical cues to be interpreted as fear or anxiety; however, suggestions that something good is about to happen influences the same physical cues to be interpreted as excited anticipation. It is believed that the physical, cognitive, and emotional systems interact with each other such that changes in one set of cues can precipitate changes in another. Emotional contagion appears to operate though this process. Further, the ability to mimic another’s facial, vocal, and other emotional cues appears quite early in life. Soon after birth, infants demonstrate the ability to reflect the facial expressions of other people. Newborns are often noted to begin crying when they hear another child crying (Simner, 1971). Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson (1994) suggested that, through mimicking the behaviors of others, individuals affect their own subjective experience of emotion from moment to moment.

Mimicry of the emotional cues of another can occur in virtually any of the channels described earlier in this discussion. Any channel that is vulnerable to mimicry can influence the subjective experience of emotion. The more influential channels for emotional contagion appear to be the face, vocal inflections, and body postures (Hatfield et al., 1994). Thus, when one reflects the smile on another person’s face, one’s own mood tends to be elevated. Similarly, when one mimics the rigid and tense posture of another person, one’s own mood tends to become more tense and unpleasant. When researchers (e.g., Bloch, Orthous, & Santibanez, 1987; Bull, 1951) asked participants to adopt postures or hold various facial expressions, the participants began to report experiencing emotions associated with those postures or expressions.

Some of the cues used in Bull’s (1951) research included the suggestions “You are feeling heavy all over. There is a slumping feeling in your chest” for depression and “There is a feeling of relaxation and lightness in your whole body” for joy (p. 79). Not only did the subjects report the experience of the emotions associated with these postures, they also reported great difficulty in complying with the instruction to experience emotions incompatible with the postures while maintaining the posture. Thus, the physical expression of emotion and the subjective experience of emotion appear to be linked so that they influence each other.

Ability to “Infect” Others with Emotions

Clearly, some individuals are more adept at transmitting and influencing emotion than others. Professional actors make their living doing so. Among the rest of the population, the ability to influence the emotions of others appears to be unevenly distributed. This section describes some of the characteristics that influence this ability.

It is useful to conceive of people who are better able to transmit emotions and those who are less able to do so as being on a continuum between introversion and extraversion. Extraverts are more likely than introverts to be carriers of emotional contagion (Hatfield et al., 1994). The evidence amassed to date suggests that people who are high in emotional expressiveness (particularly in the facial channel) are more likely to transmit their emotions to others than those who are less expressive. According to Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson (1994), individuals who are emotionally contagious (a) experience (or appear to experience) strong emotions, (b) express their emotions facially, vocally, or posturally, and (c) are able to resist the influence of the emotions of others when those emotions are incompatible with their own. That is, in addition to being strongly emotional and expressive, they must be at least somewhat immune to emotional transmission from others.

Susceptibility to Emotional Contagion

One of the reasons that people go to football games and sit in frigid weather during rain and snowstorms is the excitement of being part of the crowd. Televised games provide better views in more comfortable environments but the lack the element of contagious emotion. It is easier to be, in fact quite a bit more difficult to resist being, swept up by the emotional environment of a crowd than to be influenced by individuals or small groups. Nevertheless, some individuals appear to be more highly susceptible to emotional contagion.

Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson (1994) summarize the conditions and characteristics that render people susceptible to emotional contagion. They suggested that people should be likely to catch others emotions if they:

  1. rivet their attention on the others;

  2. construe themselves in terms of their interrelatedness to the others;

  3. are able to read others’ emotional expressions, voices, gestures, and postures;

  4. tend to mimic facial, vocal and postural expressions;

  5. are aware of their own emotional responses; or are emotionally reactive (, p. 94).

Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson also suggested that the absence of these characteristics would render the individual to be relatively immune to emotional contagion, further, they noted that emotional contagion was most likely to occur in relationships involving love or power though the conditions and mechanisms related to these features are poorly understood.


Certain individuals are better able to express emotions than are others. Some highly expressive individuals are able to influence the emotional experiences of many of those around them. Emotionally contagious individuals, in addition to being expressive, appear to experience emotions strongly and be somewhat resistant to the emotional contagion of others. Individuals who are highly susceptible to emotional contagion appear to be focused on others and the interrelation of individuals in the environment. Additionally, they tend to be good mimics who read the emotional responses of others and are sensitive to their own emotional states. =Teachers and students are likely to vary in their emotional reactivity and expressiveness as are individuals in the rest of society.

Some Recent Research Examining Emotion in Education

Test Performance and Emotion

Perhaps, test anxiety has had more research regarding the impact of emotions and performance than any other area or education (Schutz & Lanehart, 2002). Most examinations of test anxiety have regarded anxiety as the sole emotional variable. While anxiety is clearly a condition that fits within the existing definitions of emotion, it is unlikely to be the only emotional state present in students experiencing high levels of test anxiety, given the observation that negative emotions rarely exist alone.

Turner, Husman, and Schallert (2002) studied college students and suggested that two groups of students were likely to experience shame. First, students who were characterized as possessing low self-efficacy, high test anxiety and low self-esteem were highly prone to experience shame in the face of disappointing and perceived failure (though necessarily actual failure) outcomes and interpret the situation in terms of personal failure and self-blame. The second group of students who are prone to experience shame are students with high self-esteem who are caught off guard by an instance of poor performance.

Turner, Husman, and Schallert reported that some students were resilient in the face of perceived shameful failure. Resilient students, those who were able to “bounce back” after, for example, failing a midterm examination were “(a) highly extrinsically motivated, (b) had high certainty in their sense of academic competence, and (c) perceived that a good course grade was instrumental to future academic goals” (Turner et al., 2002, p. 84). Follow-up interviews with shame-resilient students suggested that their resilience was also related to their belief in their own academic ability, their unwillingness to disengage from personal goals that were related to their present academic tasks and their possession of a repertoire of strategies that enabled them to make changes in the way that they approached test preparation. Conversely, non-resilient students were less clear about their future goals and therefore more willing to disengage, less confident about their academic abilities and in possession of fewer strategies for altering their own behavior.

The interaction of self-perception, goal-commitment, and strategic repertoire in the situations described by Turner, Husman, & Schallert led students experiencing shame as a result of test failure to respond quite differently. The group possessing confidence, strong commitment to clear goals and a effective repertoire of self-management strategies responded to failure with increased effort while the students lacking these characteristics responded with task avoidance, thereby exacerbating their academic difficulties. It is important to note, however, that both groups of students were attaining the same immediate goal, escape from the shame and anxiety-producing situation.

Teacher Behavior

Brigham, Scruggs, and Mastropieri (1992) examined the effects of teacher enthusiasm on the academic and behavioral performance of students with learning and behavioral disorders enrolled in a middle school science class. Students received science instruction from scripted lessons that were delivered in either an enthusiastic or an unenthusiastic manner. They manipulated teacher enthusiasm by either maximizing or suppressing eight variables that parallel the emotional expression channels described earlier in this document. The teacher enthusiasm variables used in their study are presented in Table 1.

The effects of enthusiastic teaching compared to delivery of the same content with the same activities in a non-enthusiastic manner were dramatic. Students experiencing enthusiastic teaching demonstrated double the achievement on end of unit classroom tests while exhibiting only one-third the behavior problems of those receiving unenthusiastic treatment. This particular study used a counter-balanced, crossover design so that each student received both enthusiastic and unenthusiastic teaching, thereby serving as his or her own control. Thus, the effects of enthusiastic teaching were immediate and resulted in the alteration of student behavior within the same students indicating that it was the effect of the teacher behavior and not the differential selection of students that was observed in the study. The most likely mechanism for these results is emotional contagion. In short, the students experiencing enthusiastic teaching tend to “catch” the enthusiasm of their teachers while those experiencing unenthusiastic teaching catch the indifference of the teacher toward the lesson.

The study of teacher enthusiasm by Brigham, Scruggs and Mastropieri examined the impact of emotional contagion from the teacher to the students. Their results are consistent with a large body of research conducted mostly with students without disabilities in general education settings. Although Brigham, Scruggs, and Mastropieri (1992) obtained positive results from enthusiastic teaching with students who have disabilities, many students served in special education settings are more negatively inclined toward their studies than are students without disabilities. Emotional contagion effects are likely to run both from the teacher to the students as well as from the students to the teacher. Less is known about the effects of student indifference on the affect of their teachers. It is possible that student indifference is related to the high levels of attrition observed in beginning special education teachers. Perhaps additional research in this area could provide insights that would enable teachers to more positively influence their students’ emotions while protecting them from the deleterious effects of student indifference.


Enthusiastic Performance

Unenthusiastic Performance

Facial Expression

Varied, emotive facial expressions

Minimal variation, ‘face like a neutral mask”


“Wide-open, dancing eyes”, frequent eye-contact

Little expression in the eyes, infrequent eye-contact


Frequent, demonstrative gestures

Minimal use of gestures during instruction

Body Movement

Varied and dramatic

Minimal movement, teacher seated during instruction

Vocal Delivery

Rapid and uplifting

Little variation in tone, slower pace

Words Used

Strong attempt to use varied words in descriptions, commendations and reprimands

Consistent use of small lexicon

Acceptance of ideas

Ready, animated acceptance of student ideas, frequent interaction with students

Little interaction with students, avoidance of student responses and ideas.

Overall energy level

High-energy, exuberant performance

Low-energy, dull, non-exuberant.

Table 1 Teacher Enthusiasm Variables Employed by Brigham, Scruggs, and Mastropieri (1992).


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