What do we really know about emotion regulation?

July 12th Room 1
Elise Kalokerinos (University of Newcastle) & Katie Greenaway (University of Melbourne)

Although we have accumulated a rich body of scientific knowledge about emotion regulation, several fundamental assumptions remain untested. This symposium interrogates two fundamental assumptions about emotion regulation: First, that people consistently use particular emotion regulation strategies; and second, that some strategies are more beneficial than others. Blanke tests the first assumption by investigating whether people show consistent patterns in the strategies they deploy in daily life. She demonstrates that people reliably differ not only in their mean use of strategies, but also in how variable they are in their momentary emotion regulation efforts. Challenging the second assumption, Riediger contradicts the common belief that emotional sharing is an effective emotion regulatory strategy, demonstrating that everyday emotional sharing is associated with emotional costs, but relational benefits. Greenaway questions whether people have access to knowledge about the benefits of particular strategies, and shows that this knowledge varies by the individual and by the strategy. Next, Kalokerinos questions whether the benefits of emotion regulation depend on features of the individual, and shows that effective emotion regulation relies on the ability to precisely describe one’s feelings. Finally, Ford questions whether the ability to regulate emotions is necessarily healthy, and demonstrates that, despite its benefits for individual well-being, effective emotion regulation may have costs for collective political action. Taken together, the talks in this symposium aim to advance emotion regulation research by questioning some of the field’s most deeply held assumptions.

Managing the daily stress of politics 

Brett Ford, Matthew Feinberg & Sabrina Thai

Recent theoretical models of emotion regulation emphasize that the longer-term outcomes of any strategy – including ‘gold standard’ strategies like reappraisal – should depend on the context in which that strategy is used. We propose that there may be important trade-offs to using emotion regulation in contexts that could benefit from direct action (e.g., collective political action). When faced with the day-to-day stress of modern politics, it is natural to want to feel better and protect one’s well-being. However, feeling better may also come at a cost. The present research examined the implications of using effective forms of emotion regulation to manage the daily stress of politics using two weeks of daily diaries in a U.S. sample of adults (N=198). We found that people frequently responded to daily political events with intense negative emotions and people were highly motivated to engage in emotion regulation to help manage their negative emotions. In turn, successfully using emotion regulation on a given day predicted greater daily well-being, but it also predicted weaker motivation to engage in collective political action, a cornerstone of functioning democracy. These findings suggest that individually adaptive emotion-regulation processes may help restore well-being in the context of upsetting day-to-day political events, but may collectively cost us democracy-shaping action.

Emotion Regulation Knowledge 

Katharine Greenaway

Decades of research has built a solid scientific understanding of the impact of emotion regulation strategies on emotion outcomes. Researchers are the generators and gatekeepers of this understanding; thus, we do not know the degree to which laypeople have access to this knowledge. A lay approach can be used build better emotion regulation interventions, for example by targeting dimensions on which lay knowledge differs from what is indicated by theory. We present a new tool for assessing emotion regulation knowledge about two well-understood strategies: cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. Data from 2,400 participants reveal consistent patterns: on average, people were more knowledgeable about reappraisal than suppression, although this main effect differed across emotion outcomes. People were more knowledgeable about how reappraisal shapes emotion experience and the time-point at which this strategy should be used. In contrast, people were more knowledgeable about how suppression shapes emotion expression and its impact on social outcomes. Knowledge did not differ for regulation of positive vs. negative emotion. This work places the responsibility—and right—of forwarding this research agenda on the shoulders of academics and laypeople alike, allowing us to develop a comprehensive understanding of human emotion regulation with theoretical and applied relevance.

Trait Emotion Regulation Strategies as Density Distributions of States 

Elisabeth S. Blanke, Elise K. Kalokerinos, Michaela Riediger & Annette Brose

The trait-as-density perspective on personality characterizes trait-level behavior not only by mean levels, but also by within-person variability (Fleeson, 2001). Traditionally, emotion regulation (ER) has been studied using mean levels, but more recent theory aligns with the traits-as-density perspective, suggesting, for example, that some individuals are more or less variable or consistent in their use of ER. However, there is not yet empirical evidence for such between-person differences in ER variability. Such evidence would launch a new field of research on the causes and consequences of this variability, with implications for psychological well-being and maladjustment. We thus examined whether density information gathered from repeated assessments of state ER in daily life indeed mark reliable and stable between-person differences characteristics. We used data from a longitudinal study with two waves of experience sampling. Participants (N=153) provided on average 70 measurement occasions per wave. We investigated the internal consistencies and odd-even stabilities of ER within the waves, and re-test correlations across waves. Overall, ER aggregated means and standard deviations were reliable and stable within and across the waves. This suggests that approaches focusing on mean ER and not investigating variability exclude a stable source of variance. We discuss that conceptualizing trait ER in terms of density distributions might foster our understanding of the role of ER in psychological well-being.

Imprecision Inhibits Implementation: Low Emotion Differentiation is Associated with Ineffective Emotion Regulation in Daily Life 

Elise Kalokerinos, Yasemin Erbas, Eva Ceulemans & Peter Kuppens

Emotion differentiation, or emotional granularity, is the ability to experience and label emotions precisely, and has been linked with psychological well-being. It has been theorized that differentiating between emotions provides important information that facilitates effective emotion regulation: when you can pinpoint how you feel, you can tailor your regulation more successfully. However, this link between differentiation and regulation has yet to be comprehensively tested. In two experience-sampling studies, we tested this link. Study 1 examined these processes as they naturally unfold in daily life as part of a three-wave longitudinal study (N=202 participants, 40,263 measurements), and Study 2 followed am emotional event: first-year students receiving their first-semester exam results (N=101 participants, 9,102 measurements). We examined how differentiation relates to 1) emotion regulation strategy selection, and 2) the implementation of strategies to down-regulate negative emotion. We found few consistent relationships between differentiation and the selection of putatively adaptive or maladaptive emotion regulation strategies. Instead, we found interactions between emotion differentiation and regulation strategies in predicting changes in emotion: Among low differentiators, both adaptive and maladaptive strategies were more strongly associated with increases in negative emotion. These findings suggest that low emotion differentiation may hinder the effective implementation of strategies to down-regulate negative emotion, supporting theory suggesting that effective regulation underlies the benefits of differentiation.

A problem shared is a problem halved? Affective and interpersonal functions of everyday emotional sharing 

Michaela Riediger & Antje Rauers

Disclosing negative emotional experiences– or emotional sharing – is assumed to be an effective emotion-regulatory strategy. Empirical evidence for this, however, is scarce and typically stems from studies that investigated emotional sharing either retrospectively or in with unfamiliar confederates. In everyday life, however, emotional sharing typically occurs shortly after the event and with familiar persons. We hypothesized that in these contexts, the primary function of emotional sharing may not necessarily be immediate mood repair, but rather facilitation of interpersonal closeness. In a dyadic experience-sampling study with 100 cohabitating, heterosexual couples, both partners repeatedly used mobile phones to document whether they had recently experienced a hassle and whether they had told their partner about it. Both partners also repeatedly rated their current affect and how close they momentarily felt to their partner. Participants’ relationship closeness was again assessed about two years later. When everyday hassles had occurred, participants reported lower emotional well-being, but higher feelings of closeness towards their partner when they had shared the experience with their partner as compared to when they had not. In addition, the more participants engaged in emotional sharing during the experience-sampling phase, the higher were both their own and their partners’ reports of relationship closeness two years later, controlling for initial relationship closeness. In conclusion, this study suggests that immediate mood-repair may not be the primary function of everyday emotional sharing. Instead, our findings are consistent with the idea that emotional sharing serves interpersonal functions of regulating relationship closeness, both immediately and over time.