Character  &  Context

Emotional Similarity can Reduce Stress

Image of man speaking on a stage in front of a crowd of seated people

By Sarah S. M. Townsend

Does public speaking stress you out? If you are the type of person who gets very stressed out when you have to give a presentation, what do you usually do to help yourself feel better? Take a deep breath? Imagine the crowd naked? Perhaps talk to someone who looks confident and seems to know what she’s doing? Or share your feelings with someone who seems equally stressed? Most people may not think of this last one, but our recent research suggests they might want to give it a try.

Heejung Kim and I examined whether talking with someone who is emotionally similar helps to reduce people’s experiences of stress during threatening situations by conducting the following experiment. Female undergraduate students came to our lab for a study and were paired up with someone they had never met. We told these young women that their main task would be to give a speech in front of a video camera. However, before the speeches, we gave the pairs time to get to know each other, and encouraged them to discuss how they were feeling about making their speeches. We even had them show each other their responses on an emotions questionnaire, so they could see how much the other participant was feeling a wide range of emotions, such as happy, upset, irritable, ashamed, nervous, and relaxed. We also used these questionnaires to measure emotional similarity by correlating each woman’s responses with her partner’s. To measure how much the speech stressed them out, we asked these women how worried and anxious they felt and also assessed their cortisol levels—a stress hormone.

We expected that women who were afraid of public speaking would, of course, be stressed out (i.e., they would feel worried and anxious and show high levels of cortisol), but what we were primarily interested in was how being and talking with another person would impact their stress response. We expected that having a conversation with the other participant could ease this experience of stress, but only when the other person was experiencing a similar set of emotions. Why? Because we thought that learning that someone is having emotions similar to your own may validate your feelings and give you a sense of predictability in the situation, which can lower stress levels.

Our predictions were supported. When women were faced with a threatening situation, talking with a person who was in a similar emotional state helped them to feel less stress than talking with someone who was feeling a different set of emotions. For example, a participant feeling upset and nervous was better off if her conversational partner was also feeling upset and nervous than if her partner was feeling happy and relaxed. Thus, talking with someone who is emotionally similar buffers people from experiencing heightened stress during threatening situations.

Our findings may have important implications beyond coping with the stress of public speaking. One important area is the issue of how people from different backgrounds get along with each other. In our contemporary diverse societies, people regularly interact with others from different social and cultural backgrounds. Psychological research shows that the different experiences and perspectives that accompany these backgrounds often influence the emotions people feel. Given that, emotional similarity may be one of the reasons people prefer to hang out with others of the same race/ethnicity, social class, or gender. Armed with our new findings of the benefits of emotional similarity, we may be able to design interventions and create situations that can make starting and maintaining relationships with people from different backgrounds easier. For example, we might encourage people to pay attention to how others are feeling to allow people to discover more emotional common ground. Additionally, in the event that people notice they are experiencing different emotions, we could have them engage in a perspective-taking exercise. Such an exercise may encourage them to focus on each other’s emotions and recognize them as different but valid ways of feeling.

Of course, there are always questions that remain unanswered. In particular, does the stress-buffering benefit of emotional similarity extend to all emotions? For example, seeing another person display an emotional expression that implies danger may lead one to infer greater danger and, therefore, exacerbate one’s experience of stress. Similarly, when one’s interaction partner is also the target of his or her negative emotion, such as anger or disgust, similarity on these emotions may be more harmful than beneficial. Future research should investigate these possibilities.

In sum, when people are in a threatening situation, interactions with emotionally similar people seem to have benefits. So the next time you have to give a presentation, remember to buddy up with someone who feels the same way about it that you do.


Sarah S. M. Townsend is an assistant professor of management and organization at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. Her current research examines how people’s social and cultural backgrounds shape their beliefs and how these beliefs, in turn, influence people’s ability to thrive in diverse settings. (www.sarahsmtownsend.com)

Heejung S. Kim is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on cultural and genetic influences on the use and effects of self-expression. (https://labs.psych.ucsb.edu/kim/heejung/)

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