The team study surveyed 140 adults and asked them about various hypothetical situations. What they found was pretty alarming.
“We have shown that people can be ‘cruel to be kind’ – that is, they may decide to make someone feel worse if this emotion is beneficial for that other person, even if this does not entail any personal benefit for them,” psychological scientist Belén López-Pérez, who was one of the authors of the study explained. “These results expand our knowledge of the motivations underlying emotion regulation between people.”
They found that the participants who were mean to their partners in the present actually wanted them to succeed in the future.
“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,” López-Pérez said.
The team tested their hypothesis by assigning every participant an anonymous “partner” (Player A). In truth, everyone was assigned to be Player B, Player A didn’t exist in actuality.
They were then asked to read an alleged note from Player A that described their most recent breakup. Some were asked to empathize with Player A while others were instructed to remain detached.
All 140 adults were told to play a video game. Half played Soldier of Fortune, a first-person shooter game where the goal is to kill as many enemies as possible (confrontation goal) while the other half played Escape Dead Island, a first-person survival game where the target is to escape from zombies (avoidance goal).
The subjects were asked to listen to music and use a scale of 1-7 to rate how much they wanted Player A to listen to each clip. They also rated the extent to which they wanted their partner to feel angry, fearful, or neutral in relative to the usefulness of the emotions while playing the game.
The results showed those that empathized with Player A when making decisions about the game, focused on stirring up specific emotions in their partner. The empathizers who played Soldier of Fortune focused specifically on inducing anger in Player A, while those who played Escape Dead Island focused specifically on inducing fear.
López-Pérez concluded that: “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.”
So the next time some you’re out with your friends and that one person purposely starts getting under your skin, remember they’re doing it out of love.