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Emotion Regulation

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

Emotional responses such as the stress reaction are useful in warning us about potential danger and in mobilizing our response to it, so it is a good thing that we have them. However, we also need to learn how to control our emotions, to prevent them from letting our behavior get out of control. Theabilityto successfully control our emotions is known as emotion regulation.

Emotion regulation has some important positive outcomes. Consider, for instance, research by Walter Mischel and his colleagues. In their studies, they had 4- a nd 5-year-old children sit at a table in front of a yummy snack, such as a chocolate c hip cookie or a marshmallow. The children were told that they could eat the snack right away if they wanted. However, they were also told that if they could wait for just a couple of minutes, they’d be able to have two snacks—both the one in front of them and another just like it. However, if they ate the one that was in front of them before the time was up, they would not get a second.

Mischel found that some children were able to override the impulse to seek immediate gratification to obtain a greater reward at a later time. Other children, of course, were not; they just ate the first snack right away. Furthermore, the inability to delay gratification seemed to occur in a spontaneous and emotional manner, without much thought. The children who could not resist simply grabbed the cookie because it looked so yummy, without being able to stop themselves (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Strack & Deutsch, 2007). 1

The ability to regulate our emotions has important consequences later in life. When Mischel followed up on the children in his original study, he found that those who had been able to self- regulate grew up to have some highly positive characteristics: They g ot better SAT scores, were rated by their friends as more socially adept, and were found to cope with frustration and stress better than those children who could not resist the tempting cookie at a young age. Thus effective self-regulation can be recognized as an important key to success in life (Ayduk et al., 2000; Eigsti et al., 2006; Mischel & Ayduk, 2004). 2 

Emotion regulation is influenced by body chemicals, particularly the neurotransmitter serotonin. Preferences for small, immediate rewards over large but later rewards have been linked to low levels of serotonin in animals (Bizot, Le Bihan, Peuch, Hamon, & Thiebot, 1999; Liu, Wilkinson, & Robbins, 2004), 3 and low levels of serotonin are tied to violence and impulsiveness in human suicides (Asberg, Traskman, & Thoren, 1976). 4

Research Focus: Emotion Regulation Takes Effort

Emotion regulation is particularly difficult when we are tired, depressed, o r anxious, and it is under these conditions that we more easily let our emotions get the best of us (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). 5 If you are tired and worried about an upcoming exam, you may find yourself getting angry and taking it out on your roommate, even though she really hasn’t done anything to deserve it and you don’t really want to be angry at her. I t is no secret that we are more likely fail at our diets when we are under a lot of stress, or at night when we are tired.

Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister (1998) 6 conducted a study to demonstrate that emotion regulation—that is, either increasing or decreasing our emotional responses—takes work. They speculated that self-control was like a muscle; it just gets tired when it is used too much. In their experiment they asked their participants to watch a short movie about environmental disasters involving radioactive waste and their negative effects on wildlife. The scenes included sick and dying animals and were very upsetting. According to random assignment to condition, one group (the increaseemotionalresponsecondition) was told to really get into the movie and to express their emotions, one group was to hold back and decrease their emotional responses (the decrease emotionalresponsecondition), and the third (control) group received no emotional regulation instructions.

Both before and after the movie, the experimenter asked the participants to engage in a measure of physical strength by squeezing as hard as they could on a handgrip exerciser, a device used for strengthening hand muscles. The experimenter put a piece of paper in the grip and timed how long the participants could hold the grip together before the paper fell out. Figure 10.10 "Results From Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister, 1998" shows the results of this study. It seems that emotion regulation does indeed take effort, because the participants who had been asked to control their emotions showed significantly less ability to squeeze the handgrip after the movie than they had showed before it, whereas the control group showed virtually no decrease. The emotion regulation during the movie seems to have consumed resources, leaving the participants with less capacity to perform the handgrip task.

Figure 10.7 Results From Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister, 1998
Participants who were instructed to regulate their emotions, either by increasing or decreasing their emotional responses to a move, had less energy left over to squeeze a handgrip in comparison to those who did not regulate their emotions.

In other studies, people who had to resist the temptation to eat chocolates and cookies, who made important decisions, or who were forced to conform to others all performed more poorly on subsequent tasks that took energy, including giving up on tasks earlier and failing to resist temptation (Vohs & Heatherton, 2000). 7

Can we improve our emotion regulation? It turns out that training in self-regulation—just like physical training—can help. Students who practiced doing difficult tasks, such as exercising, avoiding swearing, or maintaining good posture, were later found to perform better in laboratory tests of e motion regulation such as maintaining a diet or completing a puzzle (Baumeister, Gailliot, DeWall, & Oaten, 2006; Baumeister, Schmeichel, & Vohs, 2007; Oaten & Cheng, 2006). 8


  • Stress refers to the physiological responses that occur when an organism fails to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats.
  • The general adaptation syndrome refers to the three distinct phases of physiological change that occur in response to long-term stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
  • Stress is normally adaptive because it helps us respond to potentially dangerous events by activating the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. But the experience of prolonged stress has a direct negative influence on our physical health.
  • Chronic stress is a major contributor to heart disease. It also decreases our ability to fight off colds and infections.
  • Stressors can occur as a result of both major and minor everyday events.
  • Men tend to respond to stress with the fight-or-flight response, whereas women are more likely to take a tend-and-
  • befriend response.


  1. Consider a time when you experienced stress, and how you responded to it. Do you now have a better understanding of the dangers of stress? How will you change your coping mechanisms based on what you have learned?
  2. Are you good at emotion regulation? Can you think of a time that your emotions got the better of you? How might you make better use of your emotions?