Matching the Emotions of Others

Joanna arrives at the door of her third period math class; she is enthusiastic about her potential to score well on today's math test. Joanna started studying for this major test over a week ago, her older brother started quizzing her three nights ago, and her mother tested her last night. She is convinced that an "A" is in her future, maybe even a perfect score. The tiniest of smiles begins to develop as she looks up and sees her friends at the door; she hears them talking in hushed and somber tones.

Jason moans, "I can't believe that I didn't start studying for this test until yesterday afternoon." Reba whimpers, "My parents are going to hit the roof when they see my grade on this test. I did all the homework, but I was too tired to do much studying last night." Joanna knows at this point that it would not be a good idea to reveal her enthusiasm for the upcoming opportunity to excel. Joanna whispers with a slight sadness, "I know this is going to be a tough test. I don't know how I'll do, but my mom always tells me that as long as I've done my best, that's all I can do."

Joanna made a decision not to be exuberant with her friends. Doing so might have made her friends feel worse than they already did, and might have risked Joanna's standing with them. In order to avoid a bad interaction, Joanna decided to match her outward affect (or mood) with her friends' emotions, an ability known as affective matching. Like interpreting and communicating feelings, affective matching requires the use of sophisticated verbal pragmatic abilities, attention to processing the social situation, and retrieving past experiences and abilities from memory.

It's interesting to note that Joanna might have taken a different approach with her peers, in an effort to get them to assume her affect. She might have reminded them that they had done well on past homework, and had always received high grades on previous math quizzes and tests, etc. This tactic might have helped Jason and Reba to match her affect, and possibly, to do better on the math test.

Here are some strategies to help students develop their ability to match the emotions of others.

Helpful Hints

  • Help students be aware of others' feelings and interests through role-playing activities. Promote students' ability to interpret feelings others display, as well as to communicate their own feelings. For example, have students "read" each other's cues in a role-play, integrating both verbal expressions and non-verbal cues (gestures, facial expressions, etc.).

  • Provide opportunities for students to improve their greeting skills (e.g., learning to match the affect of others to effectively approach an individual or enter a group). 

  • Reinforce students for using appropriate non-verbal signals and verbal phrases during during conversations, group activities, etc.

  • Guide students in self-monitoring during social situations (e.g., to be aware how their affect or mood changes within an interaction).