My program of research, very generally, examines the interaction between emotions and political behaviors. As an experimental psychologist and a peace researcher I believe that it’s important to derive hypotheses from everyday life, to test these suppositions in a laboratory environment, and to take findings back into the real world to see if they hold up.
Utilizing various research methods (quantitative & qualitative: interviews, laboratory experiments, surveys, online studies etc.), I have studied: how individual feelings of security and insecurity impact the evaluation and endorsement of national security programs and the establishment of peaceful institutions and how these programs themselves, impact felt security (Mahoney & de Rivera, 2008); the measurement of human security (as outlined by the UN), and the extent to which the socioeconomic status of one’s community, the emotional climate of a nation, and the existence of peaceful norms, relate to the experience of security at the individual level in various domains across cultures (Mahoney & Pinedo, 2007); and the development of political activism including the motivating or inhibiting power of emotional appeals for action (Mahoney & de Rivera, 2005).
This background of research combined with my coursework – specifically, ideas formulated in seminars on interpersonal emotions and on the psychology of genocide (with a special emphasis on Darfur) – provided me with the inspiration for my dissertation research. Centered on compassion, my project examined how persons relate to the suffering of geographically distant others (in this case, Darfur refugees). What determines our ability to give our attention to a sufferer rather than becoming overwhelmed by self-concerns? I examined those factors that foster inaction and those that may increase the likelihood of compassionate response.
My dissertation allowed me to combine my interests in emotion and positive psychology (Fredrickson, 2001) with my growing interest in "compassion" (Davidson & Harrington, 2002). This research builds on a large body of literature in altruism, pro-social behavior, emotion & motivation (concerning very tangible target “others”) and argues that compassion may be distinct from experiences of empathy, sympathy, pity, or personal distress (Einsberg, 2002). Measuring compassion is challenging, particularly because of the gaps between moral reasoning, moral emotion, and moral action. Individuals may reason compassionately about a situation, but not necessarily feel compassion or act compassionately in response. With these, and other, challenges in mind, I attempted to delineate a set of questions that may predict the experience of compassion - a first step in the assessment of the construct experimentally.
In particular, I tested the supposition that the emotional transformations (as outlined by de Rivera, 1977) evident in the experience of joy (as construed by Lindsay-Hartz, 1982) may facilitate feelings of connectedness and compassionate action. Forty-two university students were primed to feel “joyful” and were asked to report on feelings of closeness, inclinations to take action, and to write a letter to the editor of their local paper. Their responses were compared with those of their own control ratings. Results suggest that joy may be an effective way of generating interpersonal closeness, and that the closeness associated with feeling joyful relates positively to inclinations to write letters of advocacy when in a joyful state. Further, non-violent attitudes and belief in common humanity appear to be important predictors of compassionate response (Mahoney, 2008/unpublished).
As with any project, my dissertation produced more questions than it answered, issues that I am anxious to pursue. Open ended questioning suggests that facial expression & gaze may be important to the experience of “closeness.” Further, it seems that, across the board, greater closeness does not necessarily reflect greater inclinations to act compassionately. Interviews suggested that individuals may experience different types of closeness (Emotional vs. Situational) and that these types of closeness may have different implications for action (a finding consistent with the work of Kreilkamp, 1984). It is also possible that the impact of joy on feelings of closeness may not be the only emotion associated with closeness and action. Based on participant responses, it seems that gratitude (in line with the ideas of Emmons & McCullough, 2003) may be linked with experiences of compassion - points of difference instead of closeness may motivate action on behalf of another.
Of course, it is possible that there may be more powerful influences that contribute to one’s willingness to engage and advocate for others than the one manipulated in this study (creating feelings of joy). While joy may not be effective in motivating individual action on behalf of very distant others, it seems likely that joy may have another purpose. Those feelings of joy that bring activists together and maintain their group ties (and closeness) with each other certainly merit some importance and further investigation. It is also possible that, given its transformative properties, Joy may function to change the “perception of possibility” (rather than the perception of closeness) – in this way Joy may make us feel as if our actions have greater weight than we would otherwise believe.
I have come to believe that it is also important to consider individual characteristics that impact both action and susceptibility to emotional appeals, particularly emotional arousability and one’s history of emotional experiences. Further, types of emotional appeals seem, intuitively, to have an impact on their success. Research by de Rivera, Gerstmann, and Maisels (2002) has shown anger to be an important predictor of ‘righteous behavior.’ It may thus be useful to examine the pros and cons of anger and compassion as motivators. In particular, do appeals by angry activists or compassionate activists have greater motivating power? Do certain emotional stances serve to undermine the social causes that they champion? Above all, it seems hugely important to design new, interesting and creative ways to assess inclination to act.
Emotional appeals to act on behalf of distant others may gain increasing importance in years to come. Slovic (2007) has argued that we cannot trust our affect to respond to distant suffering (and this response is affectively based). It seems possible that our ability to respond to distant suffering may relate to absent others in general (Future victims of war, future victims of nuclear weapons, victims of the environmental crisis/future generations, even our future selves) – we have no tangible access to others in the future. It is possible that we cannot even imagine these distant others, thereby creating another level of distancing and impeding preventative action. To the extent that we are incapable of imagining and relating to these ‘future others’ it is unlikely that we will change our actions to prevent such atrocities. The question therefore remains – how might we foster recognition, connectedness, responsibility and arousal to action. De Rivera (1989b) has suggested that for a new world, we need to forge new selves focused on connection rather than fear and self-concern. We may not need entirely new selves, as much as a means of activating the already present potential for other-regard in instances where such connection is particularly difficult.
Along these lines, I am particularly interested in the emotional contexts within which peaceful interactions and personal transformations become possible as well as how these changes are maintained. And against this backdrop, I have recently become curious about the creation and sustenance of safe spaces for interpersonal dialogue and personal transformation. What environments transform our personal boundaries and enable individuals to be genuine, to act and to present themselves authentically, and how might one carry that created safe space beyond the initial encounter? This interest is reinforced and enhanced by my experience teaching in a classroom environment (see teaching philosophy) and by numerous service activities (for example, working in prisons & psychiatric units, and at a reconciliation centre in Northern Ireland - see CV for more details) and personal experiences, where I have participated first hand in practical, real world applications of theory in practice.