Are you able to show others by the expression of emotion in your face, voice, and posture how you feel about the eye surgery picture shown above? Can you “fool” someone into believing that a startling, loud noise has no emotional or physiological effect upon you? A team of organizational behavior and psychological science researchers utilized these types of scenarios in the laboratory to investigate individual variation in the ability to implement strategies to regulate emotions. The team examined variations in how people modify facial expression, voice, and posture and how those abilities associate with well-being and financial success. Their results make important contributions to theory development about our emotion regulation repertoire.
A difference between what a person “knows” about how to best manage emotions and situational demands and the “ability” to implement strategies to regulate emotions exists. Certain assessments of “emotional intelligence” measure knowledge about strategies to manage emotions. The researchers acknowledge that it is important to know how to best manage emotions. They argue, however, that “knowledge does not fully represent the domain of emotion regulation ability.” The other part is the ability to implement strategies to regulate emotions. They describe this as whether a person “can actually operate the machinery of emotion regulation.”
The research team utilized tools that objectively assess the ability to implement emotion regulation strategies. Employing these recent affective science advances, the team utilized laboratory paradigms in which persons received specific instructions about how to regulate their emotions. The results show that emotion regulation and individual variation in the ability to implement strategies to regulate emotion can be measured. The results also answered questions about the ways in which well-being correlates with these abilities. A final reason explains why this study is important: $$$$$. The “results provide direct evidence that an important emotional ability, the ability to implement regulation of the behavioral signs of emotion, is associated with socioeconomic criteria.”
The “Ups” and “Downs” of Emotion Regulation
This research considered “visible expressive behavior”. This relates to what we show, what and how we speak, and how we hold ourselves out to the world. We regulate our emotions several times each day. Research shows that more than half of the time we do so by modifying the expression of emotions in our face, voice, and posture. According to the investigators, because of the frequency of such activity, it is reasonable to expect that our ability to regulate this behavior implicates important associations with other important aspects of our lives.
A broad theoretical background supports the notion that our ability to regulate the expressions which we show in our face, the tone and other verbal qualities of our voice, and our body posture has an association with various indicators of well-being and success. This type of regulation involves “up-regulation”, or amplifying emotional expressive behavior. It also involves “down-regulation”, meaning reducing emotional expressive behavior.
The researchers provided an extensive theoretical background to the study. They reviewed existing literature and discussed how those studies, and also philosophical commentary, suggest a possible link, both a positive association and a negative association, between the ability to implement emotional regulation strategies assessed in the laboratory and well-being and financial success.
The positive associations between well-being and financial success and the ability to rein in emotional impulses pointed out in the literature include: conforming to display rules in work settings; being less exhausted from giving attention to display rules; being exposed to others similarly successful and learning to model successes; being in environments with better conflict management may include lower violence and less hostility. It is also possible that the associations between emotion regulation ability and well-being and financial success are negative.
A stream of research suggests that people with high emotion regulation ability may be less happy and less successful because of physiological costs. The negative associations may include: increased risk of coronary heart disease and hypertension; prolonged recovery from traumatic events; deterioration in relationships due to suppression of emotional signals. Those with success and well-being may not need to develop emotion regulation abilities. Their sense of power may cause a feeling that no need exists for emotion regulation. Other studies cited suggest, the authors argued, that at least some aspects of well-being may predict lower emotion regulation ability in the long-term.
Goals of Research
The investigators stated their research goal: “The goal of this research is to determine whether the ability to implement emotion regulation strategies assessed in the laboratory is associated with well-being and financial success and, if so, in what direction.” They wanted to identify whether an association existed and to test the direction in which emotion regulation is associated with well-being and financial success. The investigators conducted two (2) studies.
Study 1 utilized an unpleasant auditory stimulus. This study examined whether the ability to reduce emotional expressive behavior had any association with well-being. If an association existed, the team wanted to determine whether it meant more or less well-being. This study looked at down-regulation.
Study 2 examined up-regulation. In addition to assessing well-being, the study investigated disposable income and socioeconomic status. This study examined the association between variation in the ability to amplify emotional expression to a movie that elicits disgust and well-being, disposable income, and socioeconomic status.
What the Researchers Did, Measures Used, & Results
Study 1 - down-regulation (reducing emotional expressive behavior).
The research team employed an “acoustic startle”. This consisted of a brief burst of “white noise”. The authors noted that past research has shown this kind of noise is considered “noxious and elicits strong emotional responses”. The instructions told the participants that the investigators wanted “to see how well you can keep from showing any emotional response when hearing the noise.” The instructions also told the participants to try not to feel anything and that they should “try not to have a physiological reaction.” The participants got instructed to try to act in such a way that any person who watched the video recording with the sound off would not know that anything has happened. The instructions also directed the participants to try “not to show any visible signs or feel anything before, during, or after the loud noise occurs.” The instructions also told the participants to try to look relaxed all the way through. Finally, the last instruction that the investigators wanted the participants to follow stated “See if you can fool the person who will be studying this video.”
Study 1 included a measure of emotional expressive behavior. Trained judges used the Emotional Expressive Behavior coding system and rated the participants’ intensity of emotional expressions of fear and surprise and behavioral expressions of torso and head movements. The investigators ran a correlation of the ratings and then averaged the correlated codes. Those with the lowest composite scores of codes for emotional and behavioral expressions were considered as having the highest ability to down-regulate emotional expressive behavior. Study 1 also included a measure of well-being. The investigators posed five (5) true/false statements, such as “My daily life is full of things that keep me interested” or “I don’t think I’m quite as happy as others seem to be”. A second part of the well-being measure included results of the participants’ responses to questions from the Satisfaction with Life Scale.
The analysis of the results in Study 1 revealed that the participants who best performed the suppression task in response to the white noise startle reported higher general well-being. The relationship between emotion regulation ability and well-being is positive: higher emotion regulation ability might lead to higher well-being, or higher well-being might lead to higher emotion regulation ability.
Study 2 – up-regulation (amplifying emotional expressive behavior)
Study 2 examined the association between the ability to amplify emotional expression and well-being, disposable income, and socioeconomic status. The investigators had the participants view a movie that elicits disgust. The team studied the variation in the abilities of the participants to amplify emotional expression in response to viewing videos of medical procedures with previously confirmed equivalent levels of self-reported disgust. In the amplification trial, the participants viewed either an arm amputation or the treatment of a burn victim. This study also included a trial. The trial involved viewing an eye operation. The investigators instructed the participants to “try your best to let those feelings show.” The participants were to “try to behave in such a way that a person watching you would clearly know what you are feeling.” A final instruction stated “To summarize, as you watch the film clip, show your feelings as much as you can.”
The investigators used the expressive behavior coding system as in Study 1 to code the participants’ expressions of disgust, anger, contempt, fear, and sadness to measure emotional expressive behavior. The team created composite scores. Participants with the highest composite score were considered to have the highest ability to up-regulate emotional expressive behavior. The well-being measures used in Study 1 also got employed in Study 2. The life satisfaction measure ratings included questions about 19 specific aspects of the participants’ lives, including social relationships and personal achievements.
In addition to well-being, the investigators assessed disposable income and socioeconomic status in Study 2 to determine how the ability to implement an emotion regulation strategy is positively associated with real-world criteria. Regarding disposable income, the participants indicated the amount of money they had for living expenses for a year. The participants also indicated the socioeconomic level of their household.
The results obtained showed that the instructions to up-regulate emotion produced the intended behavioral consequences. The participants who received the instructions expressed more emotional expressive behavior than those who received no instruction. The participants with the highest ability to up-regulate emotional expressive behavior had the highest well-being. This result matched Study 1. Study 2 extended the those results. The investigators showed that emotion regulation ability was also associated with two indicators of financial success: disposable income and socioeconomic status. The investigators broke the Study 2 research participants into two groups. Both groups showed a positive association between emotion regulation ability and well-being. The older participant group also showed a positive association between emotion regulation ability and also financial success as measured by the researchers. The third result of Study 2 showed, according to the investigators, “that consistent effects are found when investigating both the down-regulation and the up-regulation of emotional expressive reactions to both an acoustic startle and a movie.”
Discussion, Limitations, and Future Directions
The results obtained by the investigators showed that those persons who were the best modifiers of emotional expressive behavior have the highest well-being, highest disposable income, and also highest socioeconomic status. The researchers showed that a link exists between emotion regulation ability and real-world criteria. The direction of the association is positive.
Another important contribution of this research is that emotion regulation knowledge is not the end-all. In other words, the authors note that past research shows that knowledge of the best emotion regulation strategies is beneficial. But, knowledge alone “does not guarantee that a person can actually carry out the strategy successfully.” It is not knowledge that achieves results. Rather, it is execution. The authors state “Our research shows that the objective measurement of whether an individual can implement a strategy is critical to assess fully that person’s ability to regulate emotions.”
The investigators acknowledged the limitations of their research study. But, in doing so, they point toward new directions for future research. This study focused on two real-world criteria: well-being and financial success. This research provided correlational results, not causality. Also, the study did not examine the stability of emotion regulation over time. The participants executed strategies defined for them. The researchers did not study persons’ abilities to select and execute strategies in real-world situations nor did they study how much does ability vary by context. Several areas exist for future investigations using the important contributions to theory provided by the investigators in this study. Future investigators may want, the study authors suggest, to explore the implications in applied fields. School is one area suggested. Emotions permeate our daily walk. Several areas probably present opportunities to take the research forward. Taking these contributions forward should be interesting.
“White Noise, Effective Lawyers, and the Fooled …….?”
Lawyers, especially those whose practice involves dispute resolution, whether in trial, arbitration, or mediation, must implement strategies to regulate emotions every day. They must effectively “operate the machinery of emotion regulation”. This research shows that a positive association exists in the real-world between emotion regulation ability and well-being and financial success. This research has to have some practical, real-world application to the practice of law. This research is about the “doing” part of emotional intelligence. “Knowing” does not suffice.
It is hard to imagine lawyers, especially those who present cases to juries, judges, mediators or arbitrators, and the ones who enjoy the highest well-being and financial success, as poor executers of emotion regulation strategies. Remember, the instructions given by the investigators in Study 1 told the participants to see if they could “fool” the persons who would watch the video of the “white noise” experiment. Down-regulation abilities should be on the lawyer’s tool belt each day.
Trial attorneys must effectively execute emotion regulation strategies. Rules may prohibit or severely curtail the words that a trial attorney may use to convey feelings about her cause. But, as the instructions in Study 2 say, the advocate must “try to behave in such a way that a person watching….would clearly know what you are feeling”. If a lawyer poorly executes a pertinent emotion regulation strategy for her case, the strategy will not have the desired effects on emotion, according to the implications of the findings of these investigators. Up-regulation ability has to be on the lawyers’ tool belt each day, too. The zealous advocate must be able to effectively regulate emotion to “show” passion and zeal.
Success in the practice of law, especially in the arena of dispute resolution, involves not just knowing the most effective emotion regulation strategy. Knowing what should work does not guarantee success. Instead, like so many other things, it’s the next level that counts, too. It’s about execution of the best strategy that gets the job done. This is so because “. . . an important emotional ability, the ability to implement regulation of the behavioral signs of emotion, is associated with socioeconomic success.” The investigators suggest that greater financial success and well-being could be possible in school systems whose curricula include training in the emotion regulation domain. Should this be any different for ongoing professional development for lawyers and legal service organizations?
What you show in your face, the sound of your voice, and your posture can matter greatly in terms of your well-being and financial success according to the research discussed in this post. How do you successfully execute your emotional regulation strategy ups and downs? How well do you operate the “machinery of emotion regulation”? Please let us know your challenges, failures, and success stories.
Sources: Côté S, Gyurak A, & Levenson RW (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10 (6), 923-33 PMID: 21171762
The research article’s lead author’s personal web-page, where a copy of the article discussed in this post, as well as a number of other publications, can be located, can be accessed through the university web-page is located here.
Image: Strabisimus surgery. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Desinsertion_du_muscle_CO.jpg (accessed July 15, 2012); White Noise. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_noise
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