Emotion Regulation of Others and Self

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Emotion Regulation Serves Goal Achievement (or why regulating emotions needs a context).

Posted on May 22, 2009 by Thomas Webb

In one of our first experiments we (Paschal, Eleanor, and I – AKA the ‘Automaticity Group’) wanted to investigate the idea that emotion regulation might be contagious. That is, if we observe somebody regulating their emotions (e.g., biting their tongue) then we may be more likely to regulate our own emotions subsequently. This hypothesis was based on research by Henk Aarts and colleagues who asked male participants to read a scenario about ‘Bas’ who meets a former female college friend at a bar. For one half of the participants this scenario was written to imply that Bas sought casual sex with his former college friend (At the end of the evening Bas walks Natasha home. When they arrive at her home, he asks her, “May I come in?”). For the other half of the participants the scenario did not imply this goal (At the end of the evening people start to dance. Bas looks at the dance floor from a distance, and thinks, “Isn’t this a nice place to be?”). Next, in an ostensibly unrelated part of the experiment, participants were asked to provide feedback on a task apparently developed by either a male or a female experimenter. The main finding was that participants who read the scenario implying the goal of seeking casual sex provided more feedback (i.e., were more helpful), but only when they believed that the task had been developed by a female, rather than male, experimenter. Aarts and colleagues interpreted this effect as showing that behavioural goals are contagious - although participants did not realize it observing someone else’s pursuing a goal influenced one’s own behaviour.

We wanted to know whether the same effects pertain to emotional as well as behavioural goals. To test this idea, we asked some students to read a scenario about ‘Ruth’ who takes a job at an office supplies company and spends her first week working hard to fix existing problems with the computer system (a necessary evil before new orders can be processed). However, when her boss returns to the office at the start of Ruth’s second week, she is unhappy that Ruth has not processed any new orders and fires her on the spot. The key part of the scenario is Ruth’s reaction to this somewhat unwarranted sacking – she simply thanks the manager for the opportunity that she has given her. The idea that participants are supposed to have got from the scenario is that Ruth ‘bit her tongue’ and controlled her emotions. We examined the effects of reading this scenario on participants’ responses when watching a disgusting video of someone’s arm being amputated. If emotional goals are contagious, then we expected that reading the scenario would lead participants to show less disgust when watching the video (i.e., to control their own emotions). However, our results did not support this idea; reading the scenario appeared to have no effect on participants’ emotional responses to the disgusting video.

So can we conclude that emotion regulation is not contagious? It might be a bit premature… We think that the problem might have been that participants were left wondering “why did Ruth do that?” rather than “Wow! What great emotional control Ruth has!” Why would someone who was sacked unfairly just thank their vindicator and walk away? These feelings of incongruity may have swamped the inference of emotional control. The problem was that Ruth’s reaction lacked a context; for her response to be intelligible the reader needed to know why Ruth controlled her emotions. Perhaps she was mindful of causing a scene in the office? Perhaps she was thinking of her future job prospects? We often see a similar reaction when candidates on the BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’ are dramatically ejected from the programme by Sir Alan; presumably, emotional control serves to promote other goals (even if that goal is just not to appear soft when you know your Mum is watching).

…and that’s the point – we regulate our emotions so that they serve our goals. A recent paper by Maya Tamir presents ‘an instrumental account of emotion regulation’ which suggests that people direct their emotions so that they match their current goal. For example, if people are told that they are about to play a confrontational computer game that involves killing enemies then they do what they can to get into an angry mood (e.g., by listening to aggressive music). Similarly, an athlete on the eve of an important event tries to quell the butterflies (but only so much, a little anxiety can boost performance). Our future work on the contagion of emotional goals will try to capitalize on these ideas. For example, it is possible that observing someone pursuing a behavioural goal that is strongly linked with emotional control (e.g., a golfer steadying himself for a difficult putt, a student entering an exam hall) could lead us to be more likely to control our own emotions.

Aarts, H., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Hassin, R. R. (2004). Goal contagion: Perceiving is for pursuing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 23-37.

Tamir, M. (2009). What do people want to feel and why? Pleasure and utility in emotion regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 101-105.

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