24 March 2009
Keep calm and carry on
Source: The Guardian, 24 March 2009
Was the banking crisis caused by unregulated emotions? The Guardian interviews Dr Peter Totterdell, from the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield.
It is, according to news reports, "one of the darkest days since the credit crunch started"; indeed, "one of the bleakest days in recent memory". More than 70,000 job cuts have been announced worldwide, including 4,000 in Britain. None of this gloom seems to have permeated Sheffield University's institute of work psychology, where the quiet of the corridors is more to do with academic concentration - and flexible working patterns - than the consequences of global financial meltdown.
In the midst of this calm, Peter Totterdell, the director of the institute, is in the process of researching the kind of untrammelled emotions that have caused the crisis affecting workplaces elsewhere.
He is running a £2.1m project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, under the title of Eros (Emotion Regulation of Others and Self). It is looking into how people influence their own feelings and those of other people, from parents with their children to the way couples interact, to the effects on someone obliged constantly to wish customers "have a nice day" when they don't really mean it.
And then there are relationships in the workplace. Look at the causes of the credit crunch and you can see clear evidence of what happens when emotion regulation goes wrong, says Totterdell.
"In the financial sector, you've got a situation where people were on an upward spiral," he says. "They are being successful in their speculations. This fuels them into feeling good. They want to maintain that feeling, so they do more of it. They start to ignore the risks, or package up the risks, or push the risks on to somebody else, and there is nothing to stop them. In fact, they are encouraged to do it by the others around them."
He is struck by the similarities between what has happened recently to the banking system and two areas of the research programme. One is mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder, "when people go on these upward spirals and sometimes they think they're invincible, that nothing they can do is wrong, everyone around them is wrong, and their mood spirals upwards, they start taking much greater risks". The other is children, and the way that when they get overexcited, parents have to step in to calm them down, or remind them that if they persist it will end in tears.
What particularly interests Totterdell is emotion contagion: the way people tend to mirror the emotions of those around them. This goes on all the time as a way of forming a rapport with other people.
But emotion contagion is particularly prevalent in periods of uncertainty, says Totterdell, when people are unsure about how they should be feeling, and look to others for guidance.
Totterdell's office is decorated with a child's drawing and several small, simmering Rothko prints, but he does not come across as an emotional man. Is he?
"I don't think other people have that perception of me," he says guardedly. "You'd have to ask them. I probably give a reasonably calm outward disposition."
This outward implacability appears to disguise a restless mind. He admits that his sleeping patterns are terrible - something that inspired early research into the emotions of shift workers. And his early academic ambitions were certainly expansive. "I always thought there were two big problems to be solved: one is the universe and one is the mind," he says. "And I started off with the universe because I started doing physics with astrophysics, but it wasn't for me so I switched to the mind."
This meant an undergraduate psychology degree at Leeds, followed by a master's at Warwick in cognition, computing and psychology. He then spent four years as a senior research engineer for STC Technology in Harlow, looking at whether it was possible to develop computers that anticipated and adapted to people's needs, an experience that introduced him to the notion of needs changing over time, which has fascinated him since.
When it came down to it, though, he decided he didn't want to be designing systems but gathering evidence, being excited by new discoveries. He joined Sheffield University as a researcher in what was then the social and applied psychology unit and later became the institute of work psychology, and has been there ever since, bar three years at Leicester University where he studied for a PhD in the way time affects the way people feel.
What lies at the heart of his research is relationships - how one person in a workplace affects the way another is feeling - and this is what distinguishes the Eros project, too. Twenty years ago, research on emotion regulation was almost non-existent. Now, thanks largely to better ways of measuring the physiological impact of emotions, which until recently were measurable only subjectively, this kind of research has become more mainstream. But not much work has yet been done on measuring the way one person's emotional state affects another's.
The Eros project will examine this, looking at how parents shape their children's emotions, how domestic partners affect each other's moods, and how a beacon of calm in the workplace may turn into a potential road-rager as soon as he leaves the office.
Then it will investigate what brain processes are involved when people regulate their own and others' emotions, and whether they are the same in both cases. This will involve using brain scans and measurements of heart rates to discover what is going on in a person's nervous system. It will also look at whether it is possible to make emotional reactions automatic by rehearsing what to feel in a particular circumstance until that feeling becomes second nature.
In addition, researchers will study the physiological effects of people regulating their own and others' emotions, looking at what happens to glucose levels in the blood. Studies have already shown that when people have to spend a large part of their day expressing emotions they don't actually feel, they end up emotionally exhausted. Other research has found that exercising emotional control uses up energy resources in exactly the same way as exercising physical control. Totterdell's project will be trying to measure this in more depth, looking at the implications for sportsmen and women, for example, whose efforts to achieve the right mental state to compete could be using up the very energy sources they need to put into their performance.
Finally, the project will try to find ways of using what they have learned, to help coaches get the best out of athletes, for example, or people with mental disorders to control their mood swings, or bosses to achieve a productive workplace.
But Totterdell says it is also important to rethink our attitudes towards emotions and how we label them. "When you say someone's got emotional, quite often you are talking about crying," he says. "But why aren't you talking about being happy or calm? I know they are different intensities, but these are emotions, too."