Emotional Granularity

Emotional granularity is a transversal concept in discourse. Its level makes it either easier or more difficult for others to be more or less empathic with us. Read on to find out more.
Emotional Granularity

Written by José Padilla

Last update: 26 October, 2022

We all differ in how our emotions affect us. Some experience them in an extremely specific way, clearly distinguishing between a variety of negative and positive emotions. Others experience them in a relatively undifferentiated and global way, treating a variety of emotions as if they were similar and interchangeable.

Imagine that someone you know has just suffered a significant loss and tells you that they feel bad. Now, imagine someone else who, under the same circumstances, says that they feel sad, helpless, and upset, all at the same time. While the first one expresses their emotions in a rather generic way, the second one uses richer vocabulary. Consequently, you’ll be able to empathize with them more easily. In effect, the emotional granularity of their words is different.

Emotional granularity

Emotional granularity refers to how specific we are in expressing our emotions. It involves the ability to express emotions precisely and according to the context in which they emerge. In other words, it’s the level of specificity that characterizes the expression of an emotional experience.

On an emotional level, we know that there are some people who are better at understanding emotions. These skills can lead to a better quality of life.

The differences that highlight that some people are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ at expressing their emotions are represented by different constructs. These include emotional awareness, emotional clarity, emotional complexity, emotional granularity, and emotional intelligence.

Friends talking in the street
Emotional granularity is a central aspect of emotional experience. It encompasses a whole set of skills that allow us to express, understand, and regulate our emotions.

High granularity versus low granularity

In everyday life, you can observe the level of emotional granularity of others. For instance, when you ask someone how they feel, you notice that some people use really specific words to answer. Words like happy, excited, sad, or angry. These people have greater emotional granularity. They’re able to express their emotional experience in more precise and differentiated terms, using various labels.

On the contrary, you’ll also find people who, when faced with the same question, give you an extremely vague or global answer (simply good or bad). These individuals have low emotional granularity. They express their emotions in general terms, using global labels that merely tend to indicate pleasure or displeasure.

People with high granularity differentiate in detail their emotional experiences. However, those with lower granularity are unable to. Those with a higher level can distinguish anger from other negative feelings, like fear and loneliness. On the other hand, those with a lower granularity merely feel ‘bad’ without making any further distinction. In effect, it’s because the richness of our speech reflects or is associated with the precision with which we’re able to identify our emotional states.

Research

Emotional granularity isn’t just a verbal representation. A study that analyzed the activity of neurons has indicated that it goes beyond the verbal and the expressive. It seems that low and highly granular individuals exhibit really different patterns of neural activation. In fact, their brains represent emotional experiences in different ways.

This research also indicated that people with high granularity, compared to those with low granularity, use sustained attention and executive control to access conceptual knowledge. This allows them to attribute meaning to emotional stimuli.

Thus, the mechanisms of this ability can be captured by neural processing beyond emotion labeling. These results demonstrate that emotional granularity is also a particular way of experiencing emotion (Tan et al., 2022).

The benefits of emotional granularity

In the field of emotional granularity, current evidence suggests that it’s highly beneficial. Indeed, having more granular experiences of negative emotions is known to improve mental health and adaptive coping (Kashdan et al., 2015; Smidt & Suvak, 2015).

This component of emotional experience also positively influences emotional regulation. In one investigation, it was found that the differentiation of negative emotions is positively related to emotional regulation, particularly when feelings are more intense. On the other hand, low granularity is associated with a poor emotional regulation strategy.

This relationship between granularity and emotional regulation can be attributed to the theory of feelings as information (Schwarz, 2012). This theory claims that the differentiation of emotions allows us to better understand their causes. Consequently, it makes it easier for us to regulate them.

Emotional granularity, especially concerning positive emotions, can have benefits in social relationships. These translate into a more accurate understanding of the emotional states of others. This means interpersonal communication is easier.

Findings from one study indicate that subjects with high emotional differentiation are better able to accurately categorize and recognize the facial expressions of others. Likewise, people with high emotional granularity are better judges of the emotions of their romantic partners.

Friends talking in the office
People with high emotional granularity are better able to regulate their emotions.

How to cultivate it

Mindfulness is a technique that can contribute to the development of emotional granularity. In an investigation in this field, a significant improvement was found in the differentiation of both positive and negative emotions.

Emotional intelligence programs could also be helpful in cultivating emotional granularity. Training in this intelligence has been shown to lead to improved identification and differentiation of emotions. This is the case because such training programs include emotion differentiation activities.

Other interventions that can be extremely useful are those in which people are asked to differentiate between positive emotions and to reflect on the role of these experiences.

To conclude, emotional granularity is a capacity that allows us to expand the range of recognition and expression of our emotional experience. Furthermore, to improve the regulation of the kinds of feelings that overwhelm us in certain situations. Through this ability, we can keep a more accurate record of what happens to us emotionally and predict our future behavior based on what we feel.

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