Trust me, this is(n't) scary! How trust affects social emotional influence in threatening situations

Author: Eleanor Lawrence-Wood

Lawrence-Wood, Eleanor, 2011 Trust me, this is(n't) scary! How trust affects social emotional influence in threatening situations, Flinders University, School of Psychology

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The aim of this thesis was to investigate social emotional influence in threatening situations. It examined how trust in a friend's response that varied in level of fear, influenced people's experiences of fear. Study 1 established the occurrence, outcome and process of social emotional influence in an evaluative threat situation, through an experiment and interviews. Participants were exposed to a real evaluative threat situation, with a confederate who acted anxious or calm. Results showed an emotion contrast effect whereby participant anxiety decreased in the presence of an anxious confederate. This effect was mediated by a change in threat appraisals, providing evidence for a social appraisal explanation. Interview data suggested that wanting to be alone versus wanting to affiliate was determined by factors reflecting interpersonal trust, and level of trust in the response of another person could impact on that other's influence. On the basis of the qualitative findings from study 1, studies 2a and 2b explored the possible role of trust on social appraisal, this time in relation to a physical threat (an objective threat in study 2a and an ambiguous threat in study 2b), using a scenario methodology. Emotion assimilation, rather than contrast as seen in study 1, was the key outcome in both experiments. The presence of a less fearful friend was associated with a decrease in participant fear, while fear remained high in the presence of a highly fearful friend. The difference in the direction of effects observed in these studies compared with study 1 can be attributed to differences in the identity of the other- a friend rather than a stranger. Importantly, the effects of the friend were moderated by the extent to which their fear response was trusted, such that as trust increased so too did emotion assimilation. As trust was found to moderate the effects of social appraisal in 2 experiments, this variable was manipulated in studies 3a and 3b. A scenario describing a realistic threat was used, and trust in a friend was manipulated through information about their 'usual' behaviour. Results showed an interaction between the level of fear exhibited by the friend and the extent to which they were trusted. Under conditions of high trust emotion confirmation or assimilation was observed whereas under conditions of low trust emotion contrast or no influence occurred. These findings were replicated in a follow-up study using a think-aloud approach, which also examined the process underlying the effects of trust. Results suggested that people were motivated to reduce their fear where possible, and social appraisal involved different thought processes dependent on level of trust in the friend. When trust was high, social emotional influence occurred via a process of questioning and acceptance of the friend's response as valid, resulting in emotion assimilation or confirmation. When trust was low, there was an absence of acceptance. The presence of questioning and differentiation led to emotion contrast, and where there was just questioning there was reduced influence. On the basis of these findings a model of social appraisal regarding fear in threatening situations was developed.

Keywords: emotions,fear,trust,social influence

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2011
School: School of Psychology
Supervisor: Dr Mariette Berndsen