Why Some Emotions Linger and Others Fade Away Fast

Unsurprisingly, researchers have found sadness stays with us the longest, or at least that's how people tend to remember it.

How often does a feeling or emotion stick with us?


Researchers Philippe Verduyn and Saskia Lavrijsen wanted to find out what causes certain emotions to linger and others to fade away as quickly as they came.

Kate Baggaley from Braindecoder writes that the researchers got together 233 students to help with their study. Verduyn and Lavrijsen asked them all to recall a time when they had felt sad, embarrassed, shameful, happy, relaxed, desperate, etc. — a total of 27 emotional times they had to recall. The participants then had to describe what triggered the emotion and how long it lasted. There was definitely a trend that began to emerge; researchers reported “sadness lasted the longest, whereas shame, surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, being touched, irritation, and relief were the shortest emotions.” When they compared the differences between the longer, more persistent emotions, like sadness, to the shorter ones, like disgust or shame, they found:

“In particular, compared to short emotions, persistent emotions are typically elicited by events of high importance, and are associated with high levels of rumination.”

So, sadness is more likely to be triggered by an important event that requires us to dwell on our feelings and ruminate, causing the emotion to last longer.

It's important to note that the researchers also played with the variables in different groups, telling the students either to measure an end to their remembered emotions after the initial outburst was over or when they had fully recovered from the event. These conditions did, indeed, yield different results.

Under the outburst measurement, researchers found feelings of hope, exhaustion, pride, and anger lingering longest after sadness. While shame, relief, disgust, and being touched were the most short-lived feelings. Under the recovery condition, disgust, shame, fear, and humiliation ranked as the briefest feelings, and, after sadness, hatred, joy, desperation, and hope lingered longest.

The study brings more questions than answers, the biggest being how we should measure the beginning and end of an emotion. As stated above, that one variable causes a big shift. But the study also has some flaws, the most notable being trying to remember an emotion with accuracy.

Past studies have shown how flawed our memories can be over time. What's more, even vivid, painful events, like running a marathon or childbirth, are not remembered as being as painful when researcher asked about it six months later.

Read more at Braindecoder.

Emotion guru and psychologist Paul Ekman talks about how we can override and control our emotions by using a simple technique: Be aware of your facial expressions.

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