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Tough Love: A Psychologist Explains When It's Good to Make Others Feel Bad

August 19, 2018 in Blogs

By Belén López-Pérez, Aeon

Studies show that making someone feel badly can be useful.

Imagine that someone you care about is procrastinating in advance of a vital exam. If he fails the test, he will not be able to go to university, an eventuality of major consequence in his life. If positive encouragement doesn’t work, you might reverse strategy, making your friend feel so bad, so worried, so scared, that the only strategy left is that he starts studying like mad. 

Sometimes, the only way to help someone seems to be a cruel or nasty approach – a strategy that may leave the ‘helper’ feeling guilty and wrong. Now researchfrom my team at the Liverpool Hope University in the UK sheds light on how the process works. 

We typically equate positive emotions with positive consequences, and there’s research to back that up. Numerous studies of interpersonal emotion regulation – how one person can change or influence the emotions of another – emphasise the value of increasing positive emotions and decreasing negative ones. Other studies show that making someone feel badly can be useful: anger is helpful when confronting a cheater, and hurting another’s feelings can give them an edge in a game.  

Now, my team has documented the routine use of cruelty for altruistic reasons. To validate the phenomenon, we hypothesised the need for three conditions: the motivation to worsen someone’s mood needs to be altruistic; the negative emotion inflicted on the other person should help them achieve a specific goal; and the person inflicting the pain must feel empathy for the recipient.

To test what we call altruistic affect-worsening, we recruited 140 adults and told them that they were being paired with another, anonymous participant to play a computer game for a possible prize of £50 in Amazon vouchers – though in reality, there was no ‘partner’. Prior to play, participants were asked to read a personal statement ostensibly written by their opponent about a painful romantic breakup. Some participants were told to put themselves in the opponent’s shoes; others were instructed to remain …read more


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