What an excitement! Soccer is grabbing the world. Possibly more so than ever. South Africa is a gracious host to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as it is officially known. Surely an event that is accompanied by many emotions - on the field, in the stadium, in the press booths, GOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!, at home, and wherever people watch and listen to the matches as they happen.
Emotions are not just intrapersonal events - processes that happen within us, but they happen between us. Just how social emotions are is one of the areas of debate. For example, some researchers will acknowledge that emotions are social because many of the events that trigger emotions are social. For example you find out someone lied to you, you meet your loved one after a long separation, someone cuts in and takes "your" parking space. All well. These are social situations, and the importance of these situations is high because of the implications that others have for us. There will be hardly disagreement on this one. In fact, the same experience can evoke different reactions if you believed it to be caused by a software program, rather than a person.
Take the following, by now classical, example: One of the experimental paradigms that has found some interest in a new field called neuroeconomics is the ultimatum game. Imagine that you come to my experiment and I put you in a room with someone else. I give you 10 Euro and tell you that you have to split that money with your fellow subject any way you want it. If she agrees to the split, both will get the money. If she does not agree then neither will get it. Fairly straightforward. You offer 5 Euro, she accepts, and both walk with 5 Euro. But what happens if you offer only one Euro? Most likely, studies have shown, the other will reject this offer. This phenomenon caused (surprisingly) some head scratching in economists who had a hard time understanding why that would happen. Why would you reject money with no strings attached? Well, to many people outside of academia it appears quite logical that unfair behavior can tick you off and that one way to punish the person treating you unfairly is to make sure that the other one will not benefit from that unfair behavior. So far so good. Now, one of the interesting studies in this field by Alan Sanfey and colleagues (2003) showed that if the offer is made by a computer program, rather than a person, the unfair offer is more likely to be accepted. This is important because it demonstrates this facet of the social nature of emotion - the same thing happens to you, but in one case you believe there is a person causing this, in the other you believe that a computer is causing it and your brain and the rest of your body behave differently. An elegant way to demonstrate the importance of social factors for the causation of emotion.
However, I am a firm believer that emotions are social in many more ways. One aspect that an event like the world cup highlights for us is the complex forth and back that happens in mass events like a football match. Emotions are often caused by social events, they have social consequences, but in addition, in the context of communication processes there are complex real-time things happening that apparently have emergent properties. There are very complex networks at play - you might watch with some friends, you might watch with people you do not know, but who, by their fan clothing and their behavior betray that they are "with you", there are national groups involved, there are teams involved, all of these form invisible ties that make you respond to their behavior, and those who can see and hear you to your behavior. Sometimes it is even sufficient to imagine the others (we'll talk more about this one several times). It is a real time network of subnetworks that involve feedback loops that lead to big effects: Is this the madness of the crowd that LeBon wrote about? I believe it is more complicated. In the context of our CYBEREMOTIONS project we are actually interested in such phenomena on the Internet (more about that one also).
So I leave you with the challenge to think about the complexity of the communication and feedback processes in real time while watching the next world cup matches. If you can, go to a public viewing area, and observe what is going on as people stare at strangers on huge displays, staring at other people in a stadium, staring at themselves on displays in the stadium, or staring at the people on the field, who are emoting, a lot! Enjoy the emergent chaos, and try not to get too annoyed by the vuvuzelas!
Sanfey, A.G., Rilling, J.K., Aronson, J.A., Nystrom, L.E., & Cohen, J.D. (2003) The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game. Science, 300, 1755–1758.
Arvid Kappas is Professor of Psychology at Jacobs University Bremen. He has been conducting research on emotions for over three decades in the US, Canada, and in several European countries.