Sure, it’s sometimes a struggle to know exactly how your significant other is feeling every step of the way. But, overall, you get pretty good at it. When you spend a lot of time with someone, you start picking up on clues to what’s going on in their head, even if they play their cards close to the vest.
It turns out that we, as humans, are pretty good at predicting how people will feel in the future, too. A new study by researchers at Princeton and Harvard universities revealed how we mentally model emotional transitions.
“It’s one thing for me to know that your face right now is telling me that you’re happy, but that doesn’t give me any information about what I should do to prepare for whatever state you’re going to be in next,” said Diana Tamir, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton and one of the study’s researchers, to the university. “We found that people have really reliable, intuitive models for how people transition from one emotional state to the next.”
While seeing into someone’s emotional future might seem like an unnecessary skill, it plays a role more often than you’d think. How will my partner take this sensitive news? How can I best sell my boss on this idea, or on a promotion? How will my parents take it when I tell them I don’t plan to get married?
“This ability to see into others’ affective future may be one way by which humans achieve their impressive social abilities,” the researchers wrote in the study. (Tamir is planning next to study how our varying abilities to predict the emotions of people around us translates into our success in life.)
When it comes to emotions, most people make short transitions to an adjacent feeling, rather than a big move to another feeling way across the spectrum, the researchers found. They determined this by asking study participants to record their emotions over a long period of time. Someone who reported feeling joyful was much more likely to next report feeling content than they were to report feeling dejected, for example.
The researchers asked other study participants how likely they thought an emotion might transition into another. The data from the group that was recording their feelings matched up with the unrelated group’s predictions of how these folks might feel in the future. This suggests we have an innate ability to predict future feelings of others.
“We found that raters have accurate mental models of emotion transitions,” the researchers wrote. “These models could allow perceivers to predict others’ emotions up to two transitions into the future with above-chance accuracy.”
The model we unwittingly use to predict these changes is based on four dimensions, the research suggests:
1. valence, or whether an emotion is positive or negative;
2. social impact, or whether an emotion is intense and social or not;
3. rationality, or whether an emotion is based more in logic or feelings; and
4. human mind, or whether an emotion is specific to humans or not.
Transitions between emotions are more likely to happen within the same valence—so, positive feelings usually follow other positive feelings and negative feelings follow other negative feelings. You might go from “distressed” to “touchy.” Or from “giddy” to “excited.” Those moves are more likely than “distressed” to “giddy.” And our brains know that without having to think about it.
Want to learn more about how our feelings effect real life? Check out how our personalities predict the music we like.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.