Study: Inducing negative emotions in someone can actually help them

PLYMOUTH, England — Being cruel to be kind is a strategy that has actual merit behind it, and one that can be successfully employed as a means to actually help someone — despite toying with their emotions, a new study finds.

In other words, intentionally making someone feel bad or doing something that might upset them sometimes is an effective way to produce a positive result for the “victim,” researchers confirmed.

Angry woman with smoke coming from ears
Upsetting someone in order to help them can be hard to do sometimes, but a new study finds it can be quite effective.

“We identified several everyday examples where this might be the case—for instance, inducing fear of failure in a loved one who is procrastinating instead of studying for an exam,” says lead author and psychological scientist Belén López-Pérez, in a press release from the Association for Psychological Science.

The study, conducted at Plymouth University, involved 140 adults recruited for a lab-based experiment in which participants were paired with an anonymous partner who was not part of the recruited group.

Participants were given a note ostensibly written by the partner, which described their recent breakup and how distraught they were over it. Some participants were instructed to imagine how their assigned partner felt, while others were told to keep a level of detachment from their partner’s predicament.

Next, partners were assigned one of two computer games to play, which had gameplay objectives that were meant to align with the emotion that the participant was supposed to feel toward their partner (i.e., avoidance or confrontation). One of the games, “Soldier Of Fortune”, had players kill as many enemies as they could, while the other game, “Escape Dead Island”, challenged players to flee rooms full of zombies.

After playing the assigned game, participants listened to various music clips and read short game descriptions, and were asked to rate the extent to which they wanted their partner to listen to the clips and read the same descriptions. They were also asked to rate the emotions they wanted their partner to feel — anger, fear, or a neutral state — to ensure the best outcome while playing the game.

Performance was incentivized by a raffle that gave the best performing participants cash.

Ultimately, the researchers found that participants from both the detached group and the empathetic group induced negative emotions in their partners, although it was anger in empathetic individuals and fear in detached individuals.

“What was surprising was that affect worsening was not random but emotion-specific,” says López-Pérez. “In line with previous research, our results have shown that people hold very specific expectations about the effects that certain emotions may have and about which emotions may be better for achieving different goals.”

The main takeaway from the study is that participants who empathized with their partner channeled particular emotions into them, believing— consciously or unconsciously— that they would enhance game playing performance.

“These findings shed light on social dynamics, helping us to understand, for instance, why we sometimes may try to make our loved ones feel bad if we perceive this emotion to be useful to achieve a goal,” López-Pérez concludes.

Therefore, you can be mean without being malevolent, the researchers found.

The study’s findings were published this month in the journal Psychological Science.