Chapter 14 – Emotion Regulation

Response Modulation – Expressive Suppression

Expressive Suppression occurs when during or after an emotion experience, a person tries to hide or inhibit the facial expressions that match their emotional experience (Gross & Levenson, 1993).  For instance, you would be suppressing your facial expressions if you were disappointed in a present your parents gave you.  Your true emotion is disappointment, but you show either a neutral or joy expression on your face.

Many studies compare the impact of expressive suppression to cognitive appraisal.

Overall, research suggests that expressive suppression is detrimental to our own and our close others’ physical and psychological health and can even reduce relationship satisfaction.  Specifically, suppression increases SNS arousal, increases self-reported negative emotions, and reduces self-reported positive emotions.

Let’s discuss a study that evaluated the effects of suppression and reappraisal on people and their partners.  In this study (Butler et al., 2014), female participants were matched with another female participant they did not know (“the dyad”).  After being introduced, the female dyads watched a 6-minute neutral film clip during which baseline measures of blood pressure were taken.  Then, all participants watched a 16-minute documentary war film meant to elicit negative emotions.  In pilot testing, this film caused participants to feel disgust, anger, and sadness.  Figure 11 displays the procedures.

 

Figure 11

Procedures from Butler et al. (2014)

A flowchart of text boxes
Introduced to female partner.Watch nature film to acquire baseline blood pressure.Watch upsetting WW1 video to elicit negative emotions.Randomly assigned to IV conditions.Females discuss thoughts and feelings toward movie, facial expressions recorded and coded.Dependent variables measured.

 

After the war video and before holding the conversation, participants were randomly assigned to conditions in two independent variables.  As a dyad, participants were assigned to either a suppression dyad, reappraisal dyad, or control dyad.  After being assigned to a dyad, each female in the dyad was assigned to the regulator or unrestricted role.  In the suppression/reappraisal dyads, during the conversation only one partner would be instructed to suppress/reappraise their facial expressions (the regulators) and the other partners would not be given instructions (“uninstructed”).  Suppression regulators were told “to try to behave in such a way that your partner does not know that you’re feeling anything at all,” and “to try not to show any emotion in your face or your voice” (Butler et al., 2014, p. 8).  Reappraisal regulators were told ““to try to look on the bright side,” and “to try to find anything positive you can in the film or the conversation” (Butler et al., 2014, p. 8).  In the control dyads, the regulator and the uninstructed partner were told “to try to act normally” (Butler et al., 2014, p. 8).  The second independent variable was whether each partner in the dyad was a regulator or unrestricted.  The below independent variables are depicted in Figure 12.

 

Figure 12
Display of Two Independent Variables (Butler et al., 2014)

A table showing two independent variables for types of partner, and three different types of regulation for each of the types of partners.
Types of Partner Suppression Dyads Reappraisal Dyads Control Dyads
Regulators Suppression Regulator Reappraisal Regulators Control Regulator
Uninstructed Suppression Uninstructed Reappraisal Uninstructed Control Unrestricted

 

Dependent variable measures included:

  • Coding for facial expressions and verbal behaviors during conversation. Categorized as positive emotion expression or negative emotion expression.

 

  • Dial-reported emotion experience: Participants watched a video of themselves during the conversation. As they watched the conversation, they continuously turned a dial to indicate the valence of their felt emotion on a bipolar scale ranging from negative to neutral to positive.

 

  • Physiological Measures: Changes in blood pressure, interbeat interval (IBI), and skin conductance from baseline

 

Now, let’s look at the results!

Dial: Both reappraisers and the partners of reappraisers reported more positive valence on the dial (compared to suppressors, suppressor partners, and control participants).

Positive Expressive Behavior: Suppressors and partners of suppressors spent the least amount of time expressing positive emotions (compared to reappraisers, reappraiser partners, and control participants).

Negative Expressive Behavior: Both control participants and reappraiser partners spent more time expressing negative emotions (compared to suppressors, suppressor partners, and reappraisers).

These findings provide some good insights about emotion regulation.  First, reappraisal reduces felt negative emotions and increases felt positive emotions, a finding that has been replicated in prior work (Butler et al., 2003, for a review see Gross, 2015a). Conversely, suppression can increase negative emotion and decreases positive emotion of the suppressors (Butler et al., 2003).  It should be noted here that sometimes suppression doesn’t change the emotion at all compared to the control (Butler et al., 2003; Gross, 2015a; Richards et al., 2000, 2003). Regulation of course will also affect our expressive behavior.  If we are trying to not show an emotion, then suppression should reduce the expression of positive and negative emotions, as was found here and in other studies (Butler et al., 2003, Gross, 2015a; Richards et al., 2003). On the flip side, when we engage in positive appraisal our expression should also become positive, as was found in this study.

In this study, differences in physiological measures across the groups was not found.  But prior work has found that suppression causes an increase in blood pressure for people who are suppressing and also the partners of suppressors (Butler et al., 2003).  And this increase in blood pressure is the greatest for the partner of the suppressor!

Suppression is detrimental to our interactions with other people.  In a similar study, Butler et al. (2003) compared unrestricted suppression to unrestricted control participants.  Remember, neither of these groups of participants are consciously regulating their own emotions.  But the unrestricted suppression participants are interacting with a partner who is engaging in suppression.  Unrestricted suppressors, compared to unrestricted controls, didn’t report a change in their own emotions, but did report less liking, less rapport, and less desire to be friends with partner who was suppressing (maybe because of their increased blood pressure!).

Taken together, what do these findings mean?  Well, expressive suppression has a detrimental impact on our own and partners’ physiology.  Also, suppression may not be an effective regulation strategy because in this study suppressors’ negative emotions increased instead of decreasing.  Suppression also caused people’s partners to view them in a negative way.  So, this suggests suppression can also impact our own health, but also our relationships, which of course impact our health as well!  Yikes!

 

Other studies have found that suppression hinders our memory (for a review, see Gross, 2015a).  In fact, in a similar study to the one above, suppressors reported they felt more distracted during the conversation than control and reappraisal groups (Butler et al., 2003). Why?  Well, suppression requires constant cognitive effort, leaving less working memory available to process the conversation and respond appropriately.  Let’s review two studies that evaluated how regulation affects our memory.

 

One study (Richards & Gross, 2000) evaluated the effects of suppression and reappraisal on memory.  Participants were told they would be viewing slides of people with severe injuries.  Participants were randomly assigned to suppress their expressions, reappraise from the perspective of a detached medical doctor, or to watch (control) during the slide show.  Then, they viewed one individual on each slide.  While watching each, participants heard information on the injured person’s name, occupation, and type of injury.  After watching the slides, participants were given a nonverbal and verbal memory test.  For the nonverbal memory test, participants were shown four different versions of each slide and asked to pick the slide they saw earlier.  For the verbal memory test, participants were shown the slides again and asked to write down the information they heard while viewing each individual on the slide. Table 3 overviews the main findings with a description that follows.

 

Table 3

Impact of Regulation on Dependent Variables (Richards & Gross, 2000)

A table showing dependent Variables, and also suppressor and reappraisal IV conditions compared to control condition.
Dependent Variables Suppressors vs. Control Reappraisers vs. Control
Self-reported Negative Emotions No Difference Less than control
Coded Amount of Negative Emotion Facial Expression Less than control Less than control
Nonverbal Memory Test No Difference – Same Performance Performed Better
Verbal Memory Test Poorer Performance No DDifference – Same Performance

Adapted from “Emotion Regulation and Memory: The Cognitive Costs of Keeping One’s Cool” by J.M. Richards, J. M. and J.J. Gross, J. J., 2000, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology79(3), p. 417 (https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.79.3.410) Copyright 2000 by the American Psychological Association.

 

Overall, these findings show that suppressing impairs verbal memory, but not nonverbal memory.  Why?  Well, a concept called sub-vocal monitoring might help us to understand.  Sub-vocal monitoring occurs when people direct their attention inward to think about their facial and bodily expressions.  During suppression, people are thinking, “Am I showing a negative emotion on my face?  Can people see my emotions?” So, because we are thinking about our emotional behaviors, we have less working memory to process and encode the verbal information that accompanies the slide.  Why did reappraisers perform better on the nonverbal memory test?  Well, researchers suggested that because reappraisers were asked to view the slides as a detached medical professional that this prompt caused them to focus on the type of injuries presented in the photos.

 

I would like to look at suppression and reappraisal within one more context – a romantic relationship.  In this study (Richards et al., 2003), participants in romantic relationships discussed a recent conflict in the laboratory.  This is a common method used to elicit negative emotions in the lab.  The procedures and variables were similar to the Butler et al. (2014) study discussed above and shown in Figure 13 below.  Below, is the same graphical depiction of independent variable conditions that we discussed above.  For this study, participants completed a task before the conversation, during which their regulation was manipulated.  Suppression participants were told to not show emotions during the discussion and then asked to spend two minutes listing the major issues of the conflict they were about to discuss.  Reappraisers were asked to list the positive aspects of their relationship and partner.  Control participants were given no instructions about regulation and were asked to list the major issues of conflict, like the suppressors did.

 

Table 4
Display of Two Independent Variables (Richards et al., 2003)

A table showing two independent variables for types of partner, and three different types of regulation for each of the types of partners.
Types of Partner Suppression Dyads Reappraisal Dyads Control Dyads
Regulators Suppression Regulator Reappraisal Regulators Control Regulator
Uninstructed Suppression Uninstructed Reappraisal Uninstructed Control Unrestricted

 

Let’s look at one dependent variable from this study – memory. For the memory test, participants were asked to spend 10 minutes writing down exactly what they and their partners said during the conversation. Then, their descriptions were coded into conversation pieces and emotion pieces. Conversation pieces were measured as the percentage of actual conversation ideas each participant recalled from the discussion. Emotion pieces were measured as the percentage of the discussion that participants recalled focused on emotion. For conversation pieces, reappraisers recalled significantly more ideas about the conversation compared to suppressors. Neither of these groups significantly differed from the control, suggesting the reappraisal improves memory and suppression hinders memory. Interestingly, the suppressors recalled more emotions about the conversation compared to the control group. The reappraisers did not differ from the control or suppressor group. So essentially, suppression causes us to remember our emotions from an event but prevents us from remembering the actual topics discussed! Whereas reappraisal helps us to remember the conversation, but not our emotions! Why? Well, it might be that reappraisal causes a change in thoughts, which then changes our emotion!

 

Suppression

  • Didn’t remember the conversation!
  • Remembered the emotions felt during the conversation!

Reappraisal

  • Remembered the conversation!
  • Didn’t remember the emotions felt during the conversation!

 

In the Yale Experts in Emotion, James Gross explains that the brain physiology of individuals diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD) does not differ in healthy controls. Instead, difficulty engaging in cognitive appraisal may be an underlying cause of SAD. In fact, Gross suggests that individuals with SAD may simply need a instruction or cue to start the cognitive reappraisal process.

Watch from 11:24 – 18:00.

Earlier in this video Gross distinguishes between emotion generation and emotion regulation.

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Psychology of Human Emotion. by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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