In some cultures, it was a matter of honour not to show emotions. Native American warriors famously had stony visages. Victorian aristocracy prided themselves in a stiff upper lip and unflappable manner. Winston Churchill describes in his memoirs how the boarding school culture, enforced by physical violence, was to show no fear. In other cultures, emotions are exaggerated. Teenagers in North America from 1990 to the present are usually portrayed as drama queens, as are arts people. Everything is either fabulous or horrible to them, no so-so experiences. I have witnessed the correctness of this portrayal in the case of teenagers. Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” depicts Victorian teenagers as exaggerating their emotions similarly to their modern-day counterparts.
In the attention economy, exaggerating emotions is profitable to get and keep viewers. Traditional and social media portray situations as more extreme than these really are in order to attract eyeballs and clicks. Teenagers may have a similar motivation – to get noticed by their peers. Providing drama is an effective way. The notice of others may help attract sex partners or a circle of followers. People notice the strong emotions of others for evolutionary reasons, because radical action has a higher probability of following than after neutral communication. Radical action by others requires a quick accurate response to keep one’s health and wealth or take advantage of the radical actor.
A child with an injury or illness may pretend to suffer more than actually to get more care and resources from parents, especially compared to siblings. This is similar to the begging competition among bird chicks.
Exaggerating both praise and emotional punishment motivates others to do one’s bidding. Incentives are created by the difference in the consequences of different actions, so exaggerating this difference strengthens incentives, unless others see through the pretending. Teenagers may exaggerate their outward happiness and anger at what the parents do, in order to force the parents to comply with the teenager’s wishes.
On the other hand, in a zero-sum game, providing information to the other player cannot increase one’s own payoff and usually reduces it. Emotions are information about the preferences and plans of the one who shows these. In an antagonistic situation, such as negotiations or war between competing tribes, a poker face is an information security measure.
In short, creating drama is an emotional blackmail method targeting those with aligned interests. An emotionless front hides both weaknesses and strengths from those with opposed interests, so they cannot target the weakness or prepare for the precise strength.
Whether teenagers display or hide emotion is thus informative about whether they believe the surrounding people to be friends or enemies. A testable prediction is that bullied children suppress emotion and pretend not to care about anything, especially compared to a brain scan showing they actually care and especially when they are primed to recall the bullies. Another testable prediction is that popular or spoiled children exaggerate their emotions, especially around familiar people and when they believe a reward or punishment is imminent.