I laughed until I cried: Study explores the reasons for contradictory emotional responses
May 12, 2015
A nervous laugh when someone has tripped and fallen, or tearful congratulations to the happy couple at a wedding: Many of us can remember an event when a seemingly inappropriate emotional response emerged, unbidden, at exactly the wrong moment. Screaming—normally a sign of acute distress—is common among teenagers at a concert when their idol steps onto the stage. And in the presence of an adorable baby, some people respond by growling or pinching the baby’s cheeks. Oriana Aragon, a post-doctoral associate in the department of psychology at Yale University, wanted to learn more about this common but often misunderstood phenomenon, and especially about the psychological purpose it might serve. Her findings were published in the March 2015 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Aragon and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which they exposed subjects to highly emotional stimuli—for example, a reunion between loved ones or a beautiful, vulnerable baby—and then measured the subjects’ responses. The researchers conclude that negative responses to positive stimuli may be a way for people who are overwhelmed by an emotion to regulate their response. Aragon believes that people have an emotional limit, and when that limit is reached, they ease their response by expressing the opposite emotion.

“People may be restoring emotional equilibrium with these expressions,” says Aragon in a recent interview in the Yale News online newsletter. “They seem to take place when people are overwhelmed with strong positive emotions, and people who do this seem to recover better from those strong emotions.”

The researchers observed that subjects who expressed negative reactions to positive news were able to moderate intense emotions more quickly. They also found that people who tend to express these dimorphous reactions do so regardless of whether the original stimulus was positive or negative—either way, they tend to balance their emotions with seemingly opposite responses. That is, people who typically cry at a weddings also tend to laugh at a sad event, such as a funeral.

“These insights advance our understanding of how people express and control their emotions, which is importantly related to mental and physical health, the quality of relationships with others, and even how well people work together,” said Aragon in the Yale News interview.

What do you think? Do people express dimorphous reactions in order to restore emotional balance, or are other factors in play? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!