Why Do We Sigh? Honoring the Ig-Nobels, Continued

Today, another Ig-Nobel Prize installment, this time from the actual winner in Psychology, Karl Halvor Teigen. The question: why do we sigh? Is a sigh, as that all-time greatest song in the all-time greatest film suggests, just a sigh? Or is it a signal of something more?


In a series of studies, Teigen and his team became the first researchers to investigate just that—what we are signaling when we let out a sigh. Are sighs associated with specific emotions? Specific situations? Specific thoughts? When we sigh, do we view it in the same light as when we hear a sigh from someone else? Do we react in the same general way to every sigh, or is each instance a sigh of its own? In other words, is a sigh ever just a sigh?

All sighs are not created equal

First, the experimenters simply asked a group of students to describe associations with sighs by using standard questionnaires aimed at capturing emotional states (such as boredom or being in love), activity (such as active versus passive or quick versus slow), and potency (such as strong or weak and intense or subdued). They found that while sighs most often bring out negative emotional associations, such as sadness, disappointment, frustration, irritation, weariness, and longing, they are seen as neither particularly intense nor particularly threatening expressions. And more often than not, they are associated with one state in particular: giving up. What’s more, unlike smiles or laughter or other common emotional expression, sighs are seen as more of a private than a public emotion. In other words, people think they are more likely to sigh in a solitary setting.

But how realistic are these abstract associations? The next stage was to test them in actual social vignette settings, such as someone sighing on a bench or in a cafeteria, or while opening a letter or talking on the phone to a friend. In this interactional setting, people reported negative emotions ten times more often than positive ones, but in addition, two new elements emerged. First, sighs were perceived differently when someone sighed in public than when that same person sighed in private. In public, a sigh was seen as expressing frustration, boredom, or resignation, while in private, it was seen as a gesture of sadness. Moreover, sighing for me was not the same thing as sighing for you. If I see you sigh alone, I think you are sad. But if I sigh, I am merely frustrated. And what do others think when they see me sigh? Well, maybe that I’m bored—but probably not that I’m sad. Why would I be sad?

This last point goes back to the old psychological principle of self-other perception: given identical circumstances, we tend to see others differently from how we see ourselves. Specifically, in most western cultures—this isn’t the time to go into cross-cultural psychology, but the effects do change depending on the society and its cultural norms—when we experience something, we ascribe it to external events (“I sigh because I’m frustrated with this situation”), but when we see someone else experience it, we ascribe it to a state of being (“she is sighing because she is unhappy”). A sigh for me means something completely different than a sigh for you – even if we are both sighing in response to the same objective fact. But interestingly enough, we tend not to take that reasoning to its logical conclusion, namely, that others should see me as sad because I see others as sad; instead, we think that we are an exception and that everyone else knows it. Talk about a me-centric universe.

A sigh of frustration – but you didn’t see it!

In a final experiment, Tejgen and colleagues presented participants with two problem-solving tasks, the first a difficult but solvable one, the second, an easy-seeming but in reality, impossible one. The students were instructed to work as long as they wanted to, and told that they could give up at any point. If they persisted, they were cut off after ten minutes. In the meantime, observers were looking at how often and when they sighed.

What the researchers found was that most everyone sighed, and quite frequently at that. Most often, the sighs came in breaks between unsuccessful attempts at a solution. And surprisingly, most people did not remember having sighed at all—and some continued to deny it even when told that they had been observed.

Sighs, it seems, are indeed natural in frustrating settings, coming almost subconsciously to those who are struggling through a problem that is resisting their attempts at a solution. But did I sigh? Of course not. I would only sigh in private—it would be rude in public! Others in the experiment, sure, but not me. You tell me I sighed? Funny. I don’t remember that at all. You must be mistaken. It was someone else. I’m sure it was someone else.

So is a sigh simply a sigh? The answer, it seems, is as complicated as that of most emotions. It depends. Obviously, much work remains to be done to determine the whats, wheres, and whys of sighing, but such research is time well spent. Not only does it teach us about how and why we feel, but it sheds light on how we see both ourselves and those around us and offers a rare window into some of the emotions that are contained just below the surface of awareness, making it out into the world in the guise of gestures and expressions like the sigh, but escaping our own notice all the same.

If you'd like to receive information on new posts and other updates, follow Maria on Twitter @mkonnikova

[Photo credit: Creative Commons, from TMAB 2003 Flickr photostream]

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less
Videos
  • Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
  • Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
  • But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
Keep reading Show less