Science Watch

In the Star Trek universe, the ever-logical Vulcans attribute their cognitive prowess to their knack for controlling emotions that inhibit rational thinking.

It seems to work for the Vulcans. But a new study of emotion regulation and memory suggests that humans might want to think twice before attempting to banish even painful emotions from their minds--and faces.

Psychologists have long known that people adopt many different strategies for controlling their feelings. They may, for example, distract themselves with other activities or thoughts, seek social support, conceal their feelings from others or reconceptualize events as less emotional or personally relevant.

Psychologists Jane Richards, PhD, of the University of Washington, and James Gross, PhD, of Stanford University, have discovered that two common strategies for regulating emotions differ in how they affect people's memory for upsetting events. When people try to keep negative emotions from showing--a strategy that Richards and Gross call "expressive suppression"--their memory for emotional situations suffers as a result. That's not the case, the researchers found, when people use an approach called "reappraisal," reconstruing emotional events as less upsetting--for example, framing an upcoming test as a challenge rather than as a threat.

The findings, published in this month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 79, No. 3), add to a growing consensus that the ways people control their thoughts and feelings can have sweeping implications.

"There's an emerging consistency in the self-regulation literature showing that there's no free lunch," says Yale University psychologist Peter Salovey, PhD. "We know that suppressing unwanted thought takes psychological resources. We know that trying to bolster your self-esteem takes resources. And now we know that actively trying to suppress an emotion takes resources and that that resource depletion is going to have psychological costs."

"People really are creative and are quite intuitive when you ask them to control their emotions--they have a big bag of tricks to draw on," observes Richards. "What this research suggests is that how we regulate our emotions in the face of life's trials and tribulations matters."

Not all strategies are created equal

Although people have a long menu of emotion regulation strategies to choose from, some approaches appear to be more successful than others at reshaping affective experience. Recent studies have shown, for instance, that people can more effectively tamp down negative feelings--and even the physiological signs that accompany them, like high blood pressure--by reconstruing an emotional situation than by trying to simply blot out emotional expression.

These findings led Richards and Gross to wonder whether different emotion regulation strategies also have consequences for cognitive functioning, including memory. In an initial experiment, the researchers showed research participants a short clip from the film "Fatal Attraction," in which a married couple argues over his having had a disastrous affair with another woman. The distraught couple's daughter looks on, sobbing. Richards and Gross selected the scene because it elicits negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety and anger.

The researchers randomly assigned some participants to an expressive suppression condition, instructing them not to let their feelings show. Participants in a control condition were instructed only to watch and listen carefully to the film clip. Results revealed that even though the two groups showed no difference in their emotional experience, participants in the expressive suppression condition had poorer memory for what was said and done in the clip than did control participants.

This finding was promising, Richards and Gross say, because it was the first evidence that emotion regulation can hinder cognitive functioning. But the results did not resolve how expressive suppression influences memory, how much emotions' intensity matters or whether the phenomenon extends to other regulatory strategies.

To address these questions, the researchers mounted a second, more complex experiment. They suspected that expressive suppression's effect on memory was a side effect of people's attempts to continually monitor their behavior, reminding themselves not to let their emotions show. Such self-monitoring might include a silent, or subvocal, dialogue with oneself: "Am I showing emotion? I don't want to show emotion. Uh oh, I might be showing emotion. There, I just held back an impulse."

If so, then subvocal self-monitoring should disrupt people's verbal processing of what they're seeing and hearing.

Identifying a mechanism

As a test of that possibility, Richards and Gross's second experiment included measures of both verbal and nonverbal memory. They also explored whether regulating emotions of differing intensity causes proportional memory deficits. Finally, the researchers examined whether a second emotion regulation strategy, reappraisal, would have similar effects on memory. Because reappraisal occurs in advance of a distressing event and doesn't require continual monitoring, the researchers reasoned, it is less likely than expressive suppression to tie up cognitive resources and interfere with memory.

To evoke negative emotions in the experiment, Richards and Gross had participants view slides of people who had been badly injured. Some of these images were designed to arouse strong negative feelings, including images of people with severe cuts, bruises and burns. Other images were less emotion provoking, depicting people who had ostensibly been injured at an earlier time but who had no remaining visible injuries.

Each image was accompanied by an audio account of the injured person's name, occupation and cause of injury. The experimenters asked participants who had been randomly assigned to the expressive suppression condition to adopt a neutral facial expression, keeping their facial muscles still. They asked participants in the reappraisal condition to adopt a neutral attitude and to view the slides with "the detached interest of a medical professional," rather than as personally or emotionally relevant to them. A third group of participants simply watched the slides.

As in their first experiment, Richards and Gross found that participants in the expressive suppression condition showed poorer memory than did control participants, despite no difference in the two groups' emotional experience. But as the researchers expected, that finding was limited to verbal memory. When they were asked to pick which of an array of subtly different versions of each slide had been shown earlier, suppression and control participants were equally accurate. In contrast, when participants were prompted to recall the information that had been presented verbally with each slide, those in the suppression group remembered fewer details than did those in the control group. This pattern held for participants exposed to both strongly and weakly negative slides, suggesting that self-monitoring demands similar cognitive resources regardless of the intensity of the emotions being suppressed.

Unlike expressive suppression, Richards and Gross found, reappraisal did not impair memory. Participants in the reappraisal group did just as well as control participants on verbal recall and actually performed better than control participants on nonverbal recall--perhaps, the researchers speculate, because taking the perspective of a medical professional made them more attuned to visual details than would ordinarily be the case.

Following the two lab experiments, Richards and Gross conducted a field study of naturally occurring emotion regulation and memory for emotional events. Echoing the experimental results, this study showed that people who tended to regulate emotion by suppressing emotional expression remembered fewer recent emotional situations than did people who relied on reappraisal.

Far-reaching ramifications

Many emotion researchers have been favorably impressed by Richards and Gross's findings.

"Western thinking has always kept affect and cognition separate--there's passion and there's reason, and when they come together it's not supposed to be adaptive," remarks Salovey. "But this study shows that it's not that emotions get in the way of cognition--it's that certain ways of fighting emotions get in the way of cognition. I think the historical debate on the relationship between passion and reason is a little bit turned on its head in this paper."

Richards and Gross's findings also have widespread practical repercussions, comments University of California, Riverside, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD. For example, she says, the new findings suggest jurors' memory for evidence presented in a trial may be impaired by efforts to appear calm and collected while hearing the evidence.

University of California, Berkeley psychologist Ann Kring, PhD, adds that "the findings have implications for basic research on emotion and for psychotherapeutic interventions that seek to change people's beliefs and emotional styles." However, she cautions, the studies need to be replicated and expanded to examine other emotions and regulatory strategies.

In addition, Kring suggests, future research should clarify how expressive suppression influences memory.

"The idea of subvocal self-monitoring as a possible mechanism for interfering with verbal memory is an interesting speculation," she says. But because the authors didn't directly measure subvocal monitoring, she argues, it's not certain such a process is responsible for participants' poor verbal memory. Indeed, DePaul University psychologist Ralph Erber suggests, an alternative explanation may be that suppression is more difficult for people to implement than is reappraisal. Such difficulty, he argues, could hamper people's ability to pay attention to the task at hand.

"It's certainly possible that expressive suppression is somehow more taxing or cognitively difficult than reappraisal," acknowledges Gross.

In fact, he says, the idea that suppression creates an ongoing demand to monitor one's emotional response is integral to the model he and Richards present. But, he says, "I don't think our findings can be accounted for by postulating that suppression is simply a more difficult task than reappraisal, because when you ask participants to rate the difficulty of suppression and reappraisal tasks, they rate the two as equally difficult."

Future directions: health and relationships

Following up on the new findings, Richards and Gross are now looking into the ramifications of different regulatory approaches for cardiovascular health and psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety. And, they're starting to look at how people's regulatory strategies affect not only themselves, but those around them.

In experiments now under way, the researchers are investigating how expressive suppression and other regulatory strategies affect memory for social interactions in personal relationships. Preliminary results of their experiments indicate that when romantic couples are asked to discuss conflicts, those instructed to suppress emotional expression show poorer memory for the discussion than do those in a control condition.

Despite the mounting evidence of expressive suppression's negative effects, Gross emphasizes, "I wouldn't want to wipe it out of my regulatory repertoire. I think suppression has a very important place in the back and forth of everyday life.

"It may sometimes be better to disguise your feelings, even if it compromises your ability to remember a heated exchange," Gross says. "If you're interacting with a boss who's acting obnoxiously, for example, that may or may not be the time to let your boss have it."

Gross speculates that ultimately, people's ability to smoothly transition between regulatory strategies may prove more important to psychological and physical well-being than whether or not they call any one strategy into service.

He says, "My money is on a very simple proposition: that it's not whether or not you suppress that's important, but how flexible you are--how varied is your palette?"

This article is part of the Monitor's "Science Watch" series, which reports news from APA's journals.