Five Studies: The Price of Emotional Labor

Smiling your way to happiness is indeed possible—but the emotional labor economy is about as unfair as the rest of the economy.
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Smiling your way to happiness is indeed possible—but the emotional labor economy is about as unfair as the rest of the economy.
five studies emotional labor

(Photo: Vladimir Gjorgiev/Shutterstock)

Emotional labor, or the work that goes into expressing something we don’t genuinely feel, is one of sociology’s central concepts. It was first introduced in 1979 by Arlie Russell Hochschild, whose book the Managed Heart argued that, being all smiles when we’re sad, or pretending to care when we’re indifferent, does little good for our psychological well-being.

Since Hochschild coined the concept, researchers have frequently used emotional labor as a framework to analyze topics such as the stresses of the service industry. Recent studies, though, are more concerned with the nuances of emotional labor itself: how far it reaches, and how it works depending on the personal doing the emotional work. Here are five studies that give a fuller picture of the price of emotional labor.

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SOMETIMES "FAKE IT 'TIL YOU MAKE IT" CAN WORK—IF WHAT YOU'RE FAKING IS A SMILE

No, being told to smile by a stranger on the street won’t brighten your day. But, according to psychologists from the University of Cardiff, being physically unable to scowl might have some useful side effects.

In a 2009 study, researchers found that people whose Botox injections made it difficult to frown were happier, on average, than their peers with more expressive faces. The key twist is that the Botox users didn’t feel more attractive than the control group, suggesting that they weren’t happier simply because the cosmetic procedure made them look younger. Instead, it’s likely that the physical limitation led to a slightly sunnier disposition, which lends credence to a variety of theories about how our bodies affect our moods. Other studies, including one that required participants to hold a pencil in their mouths in a way that forced them to smile, have confirmed this effect.

Strictly speaking, these studies are not pure illustrations of emotional labor, since the participants experienced not social, but physical pressure to act happy. Nonetheless, these findings suggest that there can be real benefit from at least looking positive—though that result might only happen if it’s purely a physical process.

Botulinum Toxin Cosmetic Therapy Correlates With a More Positive Mood,” Michael B. Lewis, et al., Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2009.

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PERFORMING EMOTIONAL LABOR AT WORK CAN HAVE NEGATIVE EFFECTS ON HOME LIFE

One cliché image of emotional labor is the friendly-looking cashier who curses under her breath as soon as the last customer leaves the store. But for many, it can be hard to “turn off” the act when it’s time to go home for the night. Some theories suggest that managing multiple roles at work and home leads to exhaustion, so people slip into one role, and appear at home in their work selves.

In the first study into the possible “spillover” effect of emotional labor, a team of Spanish researchers interviewed dual-income couples to assess whether spillover was a problem and, if so, what the consequences were for family life.

They found that people who performed more emotional labor at work also do more emotional work at home. Since long-term emotional work in relationships is associated with lower well-being—partners can usually sense that someone is “faking it” and then start faking it themselves—emotional labor at work also ended up hurting relationships elsewhere.

The Daily Spillover and Crossover of Emotional Labor: Faking Emotions at Work and at Home,” Ana Isabel Sanz-Vergel, et al., Journal of Vocational Behavior, Vol. 81 No. 2, October 2012.

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EXTROVERTS AND INTROVERTS REACT DIFFERENTLY TO DIFFERENT KINDS OF EMOTIONAL WORK

Of course, a certain amount of performed enthusiasm is required to maintain relationships—but each partner does that work in her own way, and not all emotional work is created equal.

In a study published this June, researchers asked Israeli participants, all of whom were in relationships, to take a battery of tests that measured introversion and extroversion, how happy they were in their relationships, how often they hid or faked emotions, and how often they had minor physical problems like headaches.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that hiding negative emotions and faking positive emotions are similarly bad for relationship satisfaction. That said, for extroverts, hiding negative emotions proved worse for relationship happiness and health than faking positive emotions. By the same token, introverts were more likely to feel sadness or dissatisfaction if they were forced to fake positive emotions.

The Costs of Hiding and Faking Emotions: The Case of Extraverts and Introverts,” Tali Seger-Guttmann, et al., Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, Vol. 149, No. 3, June 2015.

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THE GENDERED NATURE OF EMOTIONAL LABOR PERSISTS IN NON-TRADITIONAL RELATIONSHIPS

One of the biggest critiques of our emotional labor economy is that it requires more of women than of men. Not only are women more likely to work in service jobs (manicurists, waitresses, etc.) that demand this kind of emotional engagement—they are also centrally responsible for emotional work within all kinds of relationships.

Researcher Carla Pfeffer wondered whether this gendered dynamic would disappear in relationships between cisgender women and trans men, the latter of whom would presumably have been socialized early in life to perform more emotional labor.

Pfeffer conducted interviews with 50 women who were, or had been, partners of trans men. An overwhelming percentage of the women (93 percent) and of their partners (77 percent) identified as feminist, yet their partnerships had been far from egalitarian. The women frequently spoke about doing the lion’s share of the housework. More strikingly, they discussed “elaborate routines” of emotionally attending to their partners in very traditionally gendered ways. One participant said that 70 percent of her life was about taking care of her partner’s emotional needs at the expense of her own; she said that number used to be closer to 80 percent. Many described their partners as fitting the archetype of male privilege, in both work and emotional spheres, within the relationship.

Women's Work”? Women Partners of Transgender Men Doing Housework and Emotion Work,Carla A. Pfeffer, Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 72, No. 1 January 2010.

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PEOPLE OF COLOR ARE HELD TO DIFFERENT STANDARDS OF EMOTIONAL LABOR

Most companies, for good reason, discourage tension at the water cooler. They want everyone to get along. But problems arise when these palliative norms, or “feeling rules,” don’t affect everyone equally.

In a survey of black professionals, Adia Harvey Wingfield found that many respondents, faced with daily racism, were compelled to perform a disproportionate amount of daily emotional labor to keep their feelings in check, just so they didn’t violate the unspoken rules of the workplace. And even when there were opportunities—feedback meetings, for example—to voice criticism, these professionals gave example after example of white co-workers who openly expressed frustration in ways that were “simply unavailable to [us] as black employees.”

In effect, black employees are asked to do more to fit the norms of the workplace—and they’re held to different standards when it’s time to complain.

Are Some Emotions Marked ‘Whites Only’? Racialized Feeling Rules in Professional Workplaces,” Adia Harvey Wingfield, Social Problems, Vol. 52, No. 2, May 2010.

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Five Studies is Pacific Standard’s biweekly column that identifies and analyzes the best academic research to deliver new insights on human behavior.

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