Do Minorities Have Equal Access to All Emotions?

Low-status people experience more sadness, guilt & anxiety

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Source: Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0
Source: Pixabay are released under Creative Commons CC0

It was not easy immigrating from the East to the West. Some days, it felt like we were walking on hot coal. Some years, it seemed like we had climbed to the top of a very tall mountain, only to realize that we climbed the wrong one. Certain difficulties that minorities face are obvious, but others are less so. One that is almost never discussed is the disparity in high-class and low-class people’s access to positive and power-related emotions.

Social class is defined as the wealth, education, and work-related prestige that a person enjoys within a particular society. The concept is intimately connected with status, rank and minority/majority membership. Where a person lies in the hierarchy set by society determines which emotions to express and which to suppress. It seems like high-ranking people are entitled to power emotions such as anger and pride, and that their readiness to express these emotions endows them with more power. In a recent experiment, anger was induced in a staged social interaction and anger reactions were judged by observers. The lower status participants expressed their anger to a lesser extent, were less resistant, and engaged in submissive behaviors (1).

To contribute to this vicious cycle, people attribute greater status to leaders such as politicians when they displayed anger than other emotions like sadness. That is exactly what Dr. Larissa Tiedens, a Stanford University professor, showed in a series of elegant experiments (2). For example, in one study, participants were more supportive of Clinton during his presidency when they viewed him expressing anger about the Monica Lewinsky scandal than when they saw him expressing sadness about it. In another experiment, she showed that people were more willing to assign more status and higher salary to a candidate who described himself as angry versus sad. It was interpreted as a sign of competence.

It seems like Tom Wolfe was right when he wrote: “Every real leader knew that the occasional outburst of unexplained anger was good…

Similar results have been found for another power emotion, pride (3). People with low-status are more likely to display gratitude in situations where high-status people would display pride. In general, people with high-status enjoy more access to positive and power emotions across different situations.

What emotions are more prevalent in low-status people?

They experience more sadness, shame, guilt, embarrassment and anxiety than high-status people (3). People who display embarrassment are judged to be of lower status (4), which leads to people getting stuck in their social rank. And people in high power express less compassion for people who express distress (5). Furthermore, they experience less positive emotions than high-status people. This differential gap in access to positive emotions such as happiness and protection from negative ones such as sadness has serious repercussions.

Lower-class people cannot afford to misinterpret cues because that might jeopardize their access to resources. This creates anxiety, not just in negative situations but also in ambiguous ones. This chronic stress has a detrimental effect on their health. Studies have shown that people with low-status tend to have higher stress hormones such as cortisol. A prolonged hyperactive physiological stress response has been associated with a host of psychological and medical conditions, such as anxiety, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, aging, and premature death.

Although society is not directly killing members in lower status of the societal hierarchy like chimpanzees do, it is killing them indirectly through factors such as:

  • Increased physiological stress response,
  • Fewer opportunities to express positive emotions,
  • Denial of expressions of justified anger,
  • Demanding gratitude instead of pride when they accomplish tasks and
  • Painful rejections

Some minorities might feel rejected by majority groups. As discussed in a previous article, rejection is a type of social pain that activates areas in the brain that process physical pain such as burning. So, low-status individuals might be in constant ‘pain’. This might contribute to complaints of chronic unexplained pain symptoms. In turn, this might be interpreted by high-status (e.g. majority group) as an additional financial burden which further lowers the status of minority groups.

How can you apply these findings immediately?

If you are a counselor/therapist/coach:

  • Spend more time teaching people with high-status compassion.
  • Teach people with low-status how to safely share their negative emotions such as sadness.
  • Teach people with low-status proper elicitors of self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment.
  • Teach people with low-status how to accurately rate threat to avoid false alarms and increased anxiety.

If you are an educator or work with children:

  • Students cannot learn if they feel threatened, sad, or anxious. Keep this in mind especially for minority students.
  • Be on the lookout for children of low-status who are less likely to protect themselves when bullied.
  • Keep in mind during evaluations that low-status employees (such as minorities) might be much more negatively affected by criticism in a way that will increase anxiety instead of productivity.
  • Keep in mind during feedback that minorities translate ambiguous comments to negative remarks.


  • Not all minorities are treated as low-status, the article only addressed those immigrants or minorities who occupy a lower-status.
  • This does not apply to all members of majority groups or high-status. The results are from experiments that have shown statistical differences. So, the reported findings pertain to averages.
  • Status is dynamic.

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