Emotions are often understood and interpreted within socio-cultural contexts (Fischer & Manstead, 2008). They are not all equally valued or appraised as some are deemed more socially desirable than others (Eid & Diener, 2001). In particular, happiness has been portrayed as crucial to personal and societal wellbeing and has persistently been promoted as necessary to living a meaningful life (White, 2007). Meanwhile, negative emotions within the normal range, such as common malaise, are often depicted as detrimental to the health of those around us and to ourselves (Ehrenreich, 2009; Haslam, 2005). This depiction of negative emotions discredits the value of painful and challenging experiences that inevitably occur, in turn exacerbating feelings of inadequacy when we fail to reach ideal levels of happiness. Social expectancies are defined as the norms for emotional experiences that individuals perceive are prescribed by society (Bastian et al., 2012). In this context, social expectancies refer to the perceived social pressure that society expects people to feel happy and avoid feeling sad. This has been shown to have deleterious effects on people’s wellbeing, especially upon experiencing emotions that mismatch those perceived expectations (Bastian et al., 2012). Previous research unveiled cultural differences in how individuals understand and react to negative emotional experiences (Boiger et al., 2013; Mesquita & Leu, 2007). Particularly in Western cultures, salient norms around experiencing ever-increasing amounts of happiness are prevalent (Oishi et al., 2006). Individuals living in these environments may perceive that experiencing negative emotions contrasts with important socio-cultural norms and values and thus may have maladaptive responses to their negative emotions. Ultimately, the preoccupation with happiness may lead to misperceptions of the frequency and normalcy of emotions (Jordan et al., 2011), contradictorily leading to less happiness. However, no research has investigated whether potential interventions may inoculate individuals against the effects of social expectancies.
Research Questions / Hypotheses
This study aimed to explore whether an intervention developed based on these theories can reduce social expectancies to avoid negative emotions and their effects on wellbeing by raising awareness of misperceived descriptive norms. It was hypothesised that the intervention group would (1) have a reduction in social expectancies; (2) show an improvement in wellbeing (i.e. a reduction in depressive symptoms, anxious symptoms, distress symptoms, rumination, social anxiety and loneliness and an increase in satisfaction with life and self-esteem); and (3) have lower means on daily measures of social expectancies, negative emotion intensity and negative emotion frequency and maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, compared to the control group post-intervention. Additionally, even if individuals still perceive social expectancies, increased awareness of such expectancies may reduce their impact on wellbeing as the intervention will change how people understand and respond to these social pressures. Therefore, it was also hypothesised that (4) the intervention group will demonstrate weaker relations between social expectancies and wellbeing variables respectively compared to the control group post-intervention.
Of the 116 participants who began the study, 10 were excluded based on insufficient compliance or incomplete participation (e.g. not completing the last questionnaire), resulting in a final sample consisting of N = 106 (84 female), aged 18 to 70.
Participants were randomly assigned to either the intervention or control condition. They were sent an email at 10am on their chosen start date (Fridays) where they were introduced to the study and asked to complete a 30 minute questionnaire on Qualtrics. The questionnaire comprised of various baseline measures including questions about social expectancies, depression/stress/anxiety, satisfaction with life, loneliness, rumination, social anxiety and self-esteem. On the following Monday morning, they began receiving messages/surveys via the SEMA3 app that they were asked to download onto their personal smartphone which continued three times daily for seven days. The day after the message/survey component, they received another Qualtrics questionnaire which included the same questions as the first questionnaire.
Two-Way Repeated Measures ANOVAs were conducted for each wellbeing component and social expectancies to examine whether these changed as a result of receiving the intervention. Two-Way Repeated Measures ANOVAs were also conducted for the relation between social expectancies and wellbeing indicators respectively to examine whether this changed as a result of the intervention. Both the intervention and control groups showed a reduction in social expectancies and social anxiety and an increase in self-esteem post-intervention. Meanwhile, only the intervention group showed a reduction in rumination. Therefore, the intervention messages may account for decreased rumination but not for improvements in social expectancies, self-esteem and social anxiety. Another component (e.g. post-message surveys) may have instead exerted an effect by inciting reflection on, and thus raising awareness of, the valuation of emotions.
This thesis highlights how increasing awareness of social expectancies may reduce the endorsement of social expectancies and improve aspects of wellbeing, however, the underlying mechanism of raising awareness remains unclear. Results may thus inform future interventions aiming to alter perceived social expectancies.