Chapter 14 – Emotion Regulation
In general, research suggests that suppression does not regulate our emotions effectively. Three concepts explain this finding: sub-vocal monitoring, the rebound effect, and regulatory depletion. During sub-vocal monitoring, we focus our attention inward to assess whether we are successfully hiding our emotion. Sub-vocal monitoring occurs when people consciously think about whether they are hiding their emotional expressions during suppression. People might think “Can people see my sadness on my face? Am I frowning?” Because we are thinking about our emotional expressions, that leaves less working memory to process the environment around us, thus impairing memory. Sub-vocal monitoring is one reason that people can only suppress for a short period of time – once we stop thinking about hiding our expressions, then the suppression ends! We talked about the rebound effect, which explains why emotional thought suppression is incorrect. The rebound effect occurs when we experience an increase in the suppressed thought once suppression ends.
Regulatory depletion (sometimes called ego-depletion; Muraven et al., 1998; Baumeister et al., 1998) is a third reason that explains why suppression does not work. This theory states that suppression uses up or “depletes” our cognitive and attention resources. And because our resources are depleted it is harder for us to perform well on tasks after we have just suppressed. Further after suppression ends, we will perform worse on tasks and find it harder to regulate our emotions, because we don’t have the cognitive resources. Studies have found that
- After watching upsetting film clips, participants who engaged in expression suppression or expressive amplification performed worse on a physical endurance task compared to control participants who did not receive instructions (so regulating affected their physical strength; Muraven et al., 1998).
- After suppressing thoughts, participants spent less time working on the anagrams and thus gave up sooner than participants expressing or control participants (so suppressing weakened their cognitive performance; Baumeister et al., 1998; Muraven et al., 1998)
- After suppressing thoughts, participants had more trouble suppressing joyful and amusing facial expressions while watching a funny film clips compared to control participants (so suppressing made it harder to suppress facial expressions; Muraven et al., 1998).
In comparison, why does reappraisal work? Well, there are four main reasons:
- Cognitive reappraisal leaves more cognitive resources to process external environment
- Cognitive reappraisal does not impair memory
- Cognitive reappraisal does not draw attention to the self
- Once reappraisal occurs, self-regulation ends.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that cognitive reappraisal always works. Current work (Troy et al, 2013) suggests the effectiveness of cognitive reappraisal depends on the context. This study found that positive reappraisal was effective in reducing depressive symptoms for people experiencing uncontrollable stress. But for people experiencing controllable stress, cognitive reappraisal actually increased depressive symptoms. Why would reappraisal increase depressive symptoms in a stressor we can control? Well, researchers suggested that in controllable stress, the presence of negative emotions would motivate us to solve the problems. But cognitive reappraisal might eliminate the negative emotions and in the process we experience more depression because we didn’t solve the stressor!