Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 05, 2020

What Do You Do When You Don’t Feel What You’re Supposed To?

by Alex J. Benson and Justin Cavallo
Unrecognizable young woman in checked shirt hiding her face under smiling mask while standing against wooden wall, waist-up portrait

Imagine hearing news that someone close to you – maybe a friend or your child or a romantic partner—just received an attractive job offer. They are clearly happy and excited about the new opportunity, but it will require them to move away to a new city, which makes it difficult for you to feel the same enthusiasm and excitement. How would you respond?

You might, of course, choose to be honest and express how you truly feel. However, you might think that being completely honest could have negative consequences, and so you choose to respond differently. One approach would be to squeak out a smile and feign enjoyment, a strategy known as surface acting. Alternatively, you could make an effort to actually change your emotions and try to match their excitement and joy. This strategy is known as deep acting.

Our research addressed two questions about how people use these two strategies to change—or “tailor”—their emotional expressions to bring them in line with how their romantic partner expects them to feel. Specifically, we wanted to know how people tailor their emotions in romantic relationships and how people’s emotional tailoring strategies relate to the quality of their current relationship.

We surveyed over 500 adults who were in romantic relationships. We asked them about how they expressed their emotions when interacting with their partner across a variety of positive and negative situations, such as when they were arguing with their partner or when they were having a good time. We also measured how people felt about their relationships and assessed aspects of their personalities.

We then analyzed our data to see whether there were subgroups of people who predominantly used one strategy over the other (that is, surface acting vs. deep acting), used a blend of both strategies, or perhaps did not attempt to tailor their emotions at all. Overall, we found that people could be classified into one of five emotional tailoring profiles.

We labelled the first profile “deep actors” because people in this category tailored their emotions primarily by making an effort to feel the emotions that their partner expected them to show. The second profile consisted of “non-actors,” people who rarely tailored their emotions to meet their partner’s expectations.

The remaining three profiles reflected people who used a combination of both deep acting and surface acting to varying degrees. “Moderates” engaged in average levels of deep acting and surface acting, “actors” engaged in levels of both surface acting and deep acting that were above average, and “extreme regulators” reported the highest levels of both surface acting and deep acting.   

Interestingly, although deep actors and non-actors reported that they managed their emotions when interacting with their partner in very different ways, these individuals reported similar levels of relationship satisfaction and commitment. In other words, people who routinely exert great effort to change their emotions were just as happy and committed in their relationships as those who rarely tried to change their emotions at all. In fact, people in both the “deep actor” and “non-actor” groups reported higher relationship satisfaction and commitment than “actors” and “extreme regulators.” In addition, people who engaged in surface acting most frequently—the “actors” and “extreme regulators”—were more likely to conceal their emotions, less likely to express their emotions, and reported lower self-esteem.

Given the early stages of this research, we can only speculate as to why “deep actors” and “non-actors” appear to have more rewarding relationships. One possibility is that people who rarely tailor their emotions, such as “non-actors,” may prioritize being authentic with their partners. Or perhaps “non-actors” rarely experience situations where they feel a need to fake their emotions. “Deep actors,” on the other hand, might have highly satisfying and committed relationships because their efforts to regulate their emotions smooth out potentially rocky interactions with their partners.

Furthermore, at this point, we cannot determine whether the emotional tailoring strategies of deep acting and non-acting foster higher levels of relationship satisfaction and commitment, or whether these strategies are a byproduct of having a more committed and satisfying relationship.

Returning to our original question, people tailor their emotional expressions when interacting with their romantic partners in several ways. Although faking one’s emotions to appease partner expectations was associated with less committed and satisfying relationships, being completely authentic about how you feel may not be the only route to having a happy and committed relationship. In fact, people who often tried to feel the emotions that their partner expected of them enjoyed equally rewarding relationships as those who honestly expressed how they felt.   

For Further Reading

Benson, A. J., Cavallo, J., & Daljeet, K. N. (2020). Tailoring emotions in romantic relationships: A person-centered approach. Journal of Research in Personality, 84 (103897), 1-10.


Alex Benson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Western University. He studies intragroup processes with a current emphasis on social rank dynamics. 

Justin Cavallo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. He studies close relationships from a social cognitive perspective. 

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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