Kathie Mathis, Psy.D, CAMS-IV, CBIF, CDVA, CCAC, CSOC

Humans read each other’s emotions with great enthusiasm, but not a lot of accuracy. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the question: “What’s the matter?” If you answer, “Nothing, that’s just my face,” people strangely assume that they’re correct and you are grumpy.

But we do this because we care about other people’s intent. What do they mean, and what do they mean toward us or what did they mean about them? Are they friends or foes? Are they honest or manipulative? In charge or not? A potential mate, or not? And so on.

The question inevitably follows on this highly practical concern about other people’s feelings, is more philosophical. It comes perhaps first in that moment when someone’s response to an event surprises you because it’s different from your own. Let’s take an anger response for instance.

You wonder: “Why is that other person experiencing the same event as I have but it a lot more (0r less) angry then me?” Our thoughts leads to a more general question, “Do humans experience similar emotions, or are we all different?” Most of us know we have some things we are similar in but others where we respond to something differently.  Anger is one of those emotions where we are trying to figure out someone else’s response to their trigger and why it can be explosive, moderate, or minimal in response to something familiar to us and our experiences to it.

Philosophy has come up with different answers over the years, but generally, the conclusion is that, on the whole, your experience of last night’s football game was different than mine. Maybe I cared more about the home team than you did, or maybe I don’t care about football at all.

Taking it a step further, think about individual words and reactions. We know that angry people come from angry families. We also know that babies by the time they are 6 months of age can become supra addicted to anger tones, facial expressions, etc. So if your family culture is one of anger from the time you were in the womb until adulthood, you are definitely going to respond to a trigger differently from someone who didn’t grow up in that emotionally volatile, verbally abusive, environment.(NLM, 2023). Parenting behavior critically shapes human infants behavior (NLM, 2023).

If I say, “manage anger” to you, you most likely get a mental picture of the great what you think a more peaceful presentation to the emotion of anger would look like, but what is it based on? Have you ever had an appropriate reaction to anger? If so, why can’t you have that reaction consistently when you are triggered? I have been able to manage my anger appropriately, never been arrested or recommended to an anger management program. So my response is based on my experiences in my family of origin, interaction with society and friends, and based on controlling my thoughts, attitudes and beliefs about myself and others. I will inevitably have a much more detailed, rich, and emotional response to the words “managing anger” than someone who has never been taught to manage it appropriately. I have experiences to draw on that someone else doesn’t have in their learning library (or may have but choose not to use those tools learned because their anger serves a greater purpose for them).

Neuroscience is teaching us that we’re more alike than we are different. Recent work on brain scans, for example, can read a person’s emotions with 90 per cent accuracy. Their brain patterns all reacted pretty much the same way when shown pictures of unpleasant things.

Similarly, work by a team of psychologists at Princeton University found that when a storyteller and a listener get together, their brain patterns match up identically. Stories take over our brains—and in the same ways.

Human emotions are similar, and the brain patterns show it. As chief researcher Luke Chang put it, emotions have a neural signature which is essentially the same from human to human. This also suggests that artificial intelligence could learn to recognize these emotions with high accuracy, 90 percent so far. The “2001: A Space Odyssey” scenario is not as far off as we might like to think. (Psychology Today, 2023).

And there’s one further implication, which is that the accuracy rate for computers is much higher than humans can manage. And here’s the kicker, higher even than humans can manage their own emotions. We’re not even very good at recognizing how we feel ourselves.

Reading other peoples’ emotions, as well as our own, is essential for good communications, and public speaking. The research shows that we are more alike than different suggesting that humans can profitably learn to become more accurate at reading emotions and that the results might pay off in better communication for anyone who attempts it.

Being able to see emotional reactions as an anger management specialist with corresponding questions surrounding that reaction with our clients will help us to have empathy, clarification and better relationship during our sessions with them in the process of helping them to identify, understand and change negative emotional responses into more beneficial, appropriate responses.