Why are people so willing to engage in a social process in which they reexperience negative affects? One would assume that some powerful incentive drives them to do so and that they find some important benefit in it. What could this profit be? Common sense offers a ready-made answer to this question. Indeed, we commonly assume that verbalizing an emotional memory can transform it and that after verbalization, this memory would lose a significant part of its emotional load.
A study by Zech (2000) showed that more than 80 percent of the respondents in a large sample of adult laypersons endorsed such a view. If this layperson’s belief was true, if data could confirm that verbalizing emotions brings “emotional recovery” or “relief”, then the paradox would clear up. People would tolerate re-experiencing negative emotions because of this final profit. We thus examined this question in a large number of studies (for a review, see Rimé et al., 1998; Zech, 2000).
In all of them, participants rated the level of emotional distress felt when recalling a specific emotional episode. We examined how far this rating evolved as a function of the social sharing of the episode, i.e. to what extent sharing, which develops spontaneously after an emotional event, contributes to relieve people from its emotional impact.
Spontoneous social sharing and emotional recovery
In most of our studies on spontaneous social sharing, the research design generally involved the assessment of (1) the initial intensity of the emotion elicited by the episode, (2) the extent of social sharing that developed after the event, and (3) the residual intensity of the emotion elicited when the episode was recalled later. We tested the hypothesis of a positive association between the amount of social sharing developed spontaneously after the emotional event and the degree of emotional recovery, this latter variable being assessed by the difference between (1) and (3). We expected that the more people socially shared an emotional episode, the more they would feel relieved.
This hypothesized association was first considered in one of the recall studies conducted by Rimé et al. (1991a, Study 6), which demonstrated that neither the amount nor the delay of social sharing was related to emotional recovery.
Equally, in two studies on emotional secrecy (Finkenauer & Rimé, 1998a), emotional recovery failed to discriminate between shared and non-shared emotional memories. Assessments of stressfulness and traumatic impact also failed to support the prediction that secret events would be less recovered from than shared ones. Overall, our studies on emotional secrecy suggested that talking about an emotional experience does not contribute to emotional recovery.
Additionally, in one of the diary studies mentioned above (Rimé et al., 1994, Study 3), recovery was assessed by the difference between the impact each daily event had when it occurred and its residual impact as rated at follow-up several weeks later.
Again, no significant relation was observed between this recovery index and extent of social sharing manifested when the event happened. Similar analyses were conducted in many other correlational studies of social sharing. They all consistently yielded the same negative results, failing to support the prediction that verbalizing an emotional experience reduces the emotional load associated with the memory of this experience. Should we thus conclude from these diary data that the social sharing of emotion has no effect on emotional recovery?
Research conducted by Pennebaker and colleagues (for a review, see Pennebaker, 1989) suggested that certain qualitative aspects of sharing should be considered. For instance, Pennebaker and Beall (1986) had participants write essays on previously unrevealed traumas. Dependent on the condition they were assigned to, participants had to describe either the facts or the feelings elicited by the episode, or both facts and feelings. As compared to a control condition in which participants wrote on trivial topics, follow-up health assessments evidenced positive effects for people who described their feelings, or their feelings and the facts, but not for those who only gave a description of the facts.
Emphasizing the feeling dimension may thus be critical for social sharing to have some impact. In such terms, the extent to which people express their emotions and feelings is expected to correlate with recovery. However, assessing qualitative aspects of spontaneous social sharing in survey research raises several difficulties. In general, respondents do not seem to be able to specify what they talked about in their previous social sharing, nor which aspect (facts or feelings) they shared most. Therefore, subsequent studies were conducted using an experimental induction of social sharing of emotion.