Emotions prompt people to engage in adaptive behaviors that help them act appropriately in their current situations. When you feel fear you run away from the source of the threat; guilt motivates us to mend things following a social transgression (e.g., “I’m sorry”); jealousy causes you to be on guard because your relationship partner might be poached away by a rival.
But what about sadness? Does it have a social function, too? Perhaps. We’ve all heard that misery loves company; it’s possible that sadness prompts us to seek out social bonds. When you’re sad (e.g., following the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship) you might need social and emotional support. Maybe the purpose of sadness is to motivate people to build social connections — that “misery seeks company.”
Across a series of studies,1 Heather Gray, Keiko Ishii, and Nalini Ambady (of Harvard Medical School, Kobe University, and Tufts University, respectively) investigated the social function of sadness. In their first study they manipulated participants’ moods by showing them a sad video (e.g., scenes from movies depicting the death of a friend or family member), a happy video (e.g., a comedy scene), or a neutral video (e.g., a nature documentary). Participants in a sad mood paid more attention to social cues (e.g., the tone of a speaker’s voice) in an auditory perception task.
In a second study, following a similar mood manipulation, participants were asked to list activities they “would like to do right now.” Research assistants, who were unaware of the participants’ moods, then took the lists of activities and coded them into a series of categories, including whether each activity was social (e.g., go on a date; hang out with friends). Sad participants listed more social activities compared to those in happy, afraid, or neutral moods.
So it does seem that sadness, as opposed to other emotions, does in fact prompt people to pay attention to social information and seek relationships with others. Sadness might not feel good, but it serves an important function in building social relationships.
(follow-up research question: does misery also lead you to like country music?)
1Gray, H. M., Ishii, K., & Ambady, N. (2011). Misery loves company: When sadness increases the desire for social connectedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1438-1448.
Dr. Benjamin Le – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.