Whether you shed tears of joy when your favorite college football team wins a national championship, or grit your teeth at the sight of a litter of puppies, you’re experiencing a dimorphous expression.

Tears of happiness are shed over a national football championship.

Tears of happiness are shed over a national football championship.

Those traditionally negative expressions to seemingly positive events are quite common and can serve as a mechanism to help regulate a person’s positive emotion to an event or incident, according to a Clemson University marketing researcher who has conducted extensive studies on dimorphous expressions.

“At one time or another, most of us have experienced dimorphous expressions,” said Oriana Aragon, assistant professor of marketing in Clemson’s College of Business. “People commonly respond to positive events with expressions that appear negative and conversely, they will exhibit positive expressions to negative events.”

Aragon said negative or aggressive expressions, like someone gritting their teeth and saying they want to squeeze an adorable baby, doesn’t mean they want to bring harm to it.

“Overwhelming responses like these seem incongruent and oftentimes arise after a person’s positive emotion reaches its limit,” she said.

Aragon and John A. Bargh, a social psychologist at Yale University, recently released research, “So Happy I Could Shout!” and “So Happy I Could Cry!” Dimorphous Expressions Represent and Communicate Motivational Aspects of Positive Emotions, in Cognition and Emotion Journal. They studied reactions from athletes and others to emotionally provoking situations. Their subjects and scenarios ranged from athletes in the heat of competition to everyday citizens’ reactions to a playful puppy or a beautiful nature scene.

Implications for marketers

“Dimorphous expressions can communicate that you’re happy, but they also give you an added bonus of communicating your motivational state,” Aragon said.

Oriana Aragon

Oriana Aragon

She said understanding a consumer’s emotional experiences and motivational orientations has significant implications for marketers.

“Dimorphous expressions are effective communicators of a person’s emotional experience, and can affect a customer’s perceived value of a product,” Aragon said. “Knowing how someone responds emotionally and how they’re motivated has direct implications to product messaging.”

She said it’s important for marketers to adjust their advertising to align with the kind of motivational orientation a consumer shows.

“For example, let’s say a vacationer’s experience at a beach resort prompted him to cry tears of joy. The study would indicate this consumer would prefer a relaxing spa package over an action package at the resort. Conversely, if a vacationer shouts his joy over the beach resort experience, they would likely prefer an action package over a relaxation package at the resort.”

Situational responses

“For social navigation purposes, a person showing tears of joy communicates they are in a ‘stop, pause or rest’ state, where they need a moment,” Aragon added. “But a person reveling in a more aggressive emotion, such as fist-pumping, is in a ‘go, move or accelerate’ state. Knowing what state someone is in tells people around them how to respond appropriately.”

The varying ‘stop and go’ emotional responses have a time and place, according to Aragon.

“For instance, in the heat of a competitive event, a player can’t cry over happiness because they’re in the ‘go’ mode as they are still in pursuit of victory. The emotion an athlete, in this case, is going to exhibit is more apt to be aggressive, in the form of a fist pump or chest bump,” she said.

Aragon said the aggressive, celebratory reaction is acceptable behavior during the heat of battle, but when victory is claimed, it’s very common for an athlete to “stop” and shed a tear.

“At the moment of victory, it’s quite normal and acceptable for a competitor to exhibit the aggressive, fist-pumping behavior in celebration,” she said. “However, it would be considered bad sportsmanship that well after the competition had ended that person was still exhibiting that kind of aggressiveness and that they hadn’t settled into more of a pause or stop state.”

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