Emotional accounting

When we take stock of how we relate to others


28 March 2019


Dos mujeres en una sala - Contabilidad emocional

Human beings need to relate to each other and from a very early age we are part of different social groups. This social behaviour is of great impact and is directly related to the quality of life we have.

To relate is to establish ties with other people. 
For this to be possible it is essential to establish a communication, both verbal and non-verbal, which initiates an exchange which can range from simple attention to the involvement of deep feelings.

If these relationships are satisfactory, we will feel better about ourselves, we will have a more optimistic view of the world, we will improve our ability to adapt to changes, and it will give us a sense of control over our lives.

Does it compensate me? Emotional profitability

PTo feel satisfied we have to perceive social exchanges as 'profitable'. As in economics, in relationships with others the accounts must be balanced. If we believe that we're giving more than what we receive, the relationship will decay little by little until it ends up dying.

In social interactions each person will try to maximise their rewards and minimise their costs. It is based on the principle of reciprocity, and if that balance is not perceived, the person will feel dissatisfied and abandon the relationship.

But the valuation of these 'social gains and losses' is not the same for everyone, it depends on how the person perceives and interprets the behaviour of the other, as well as the context in which it occurs.

We behave with others as we perceive them. So, we will react in a way if a person we value achieves success, and we will attribute it to their internal values and qualities. On the other hand, if the same success is achieved by someone we consider to be not very competent, we will attribute it to external factors such as luck or the help that they have received from others.

Dos hombres conversando - Contabilidad emocional

The importance of first impressions

The first impression which we form when we meet someone happens very quickly, even though it is a very complex phenomenon. It is a natural process by which psychological characteristics of people are inferred from their behaviour and some other attribute.

Deductions are generated from signals or signs observed in that first moment, relating them to each other. For example, if someone is quiet we think they are shy, or if they bite his nails we think they are nervous. That is, we form a global impression based on the data we observed at that first moment, therefore, it may be erroneous, but it is very difficult to change.

This impression will significantly influence the way we behave with the person and what we expect from them. Some aspects will favour us taking into account some signals more than others when it comes to configuring that first impression.

On the one hand, the expectation from which it starts, we see what we hope to see, we evaluate what we hope to find. On the other hand, it also influences our mood and context; to interpret a clue is important to know the elements of the situation in which it occurs. It is not interpreted like someone singing at a party or in the middle of a conference.

Finally, and also of great influence in the way we perceive another person, there is the causal attribution which we make. It is the inference we make about the causes of the behaviour of the other in order to define their tendencies. If flattery is received, it is not counted the same if one thinks that the cause of such behaviour is receiving a recommendation for a job, which is attributed to an attempt to make us feel good.