People naturally understand that emotions predict actions: angry people aggress, tired people rest, and so forth. Emotions also predict future emotions: for example, tired people become frustrated and guilty people become ashamed. Here we examined whether people understand these regularities in emotion transitions. Comparing participants’ ratings of transition likelihood to others’ experienced transitions, we found that raters’ have accurate mental models of emotion transitions. These models could allow perceivers to predict others’ emotions up to two transitions into the future with above-chance accuracy. We also identified factors that inform—but do not fully determine—these mental models: egocentric bias, the conceptual properties of valence, social impact, and rationality, and the similarity and co-occurrence between different emotions.Abstract
Successful social interactions depend on people’s ability to predict others’ future actions and emotions. People possess many mechanisms for perceiving others’ current emotional states, but how might they use this information to predict others’ future states? We hypothesized that people might capitalize on an overlooked aspect of affective experience: current emotions predict future emotions. By attending to regularities in emotion transitions, perceivers might develop accurate mental models of others’ emotional dynamics. People could then use these mental models of emotion transitions to predict others’ future emotions from currently observable emotions. To test this hypothesis, studies 1–3 used data from three extant experience-sampling datasets to establish the actual rates of emotional transitions. We then collected three parallel datasets in which participants rated the transition likelihoods between the same set of emotions. Participants’ ratings of emotion transitions predicted others’ experienced transitional likelihoods with high accuracy. Study 4 demonstrated that four conceptual dimensions of mental state representation—valence, social impact, rationality, and human mind—inform participants’ mental models. Study 5 used 2 million emotion reports on the Experience Project to replicate both of these findings: again people reported accurate models of emotion transitions, and these models were informed by the same four conceptual dimensions. Importantly, neither these conceptual dimensions nor holistic similarity could fully explain participants’ accuracy, suggesting that their mental models contain accurate information about emotion dynamics above and beyond what might be predicted by static emotion knowledge alone.