The Benefits of Blowing Your Top
The longing for President Obama to vent some fury at oil executives or bankers may run far deeper than politics. Millions of people live or work with exasperatingly cool customers, who seem to be missing an emotional battery, or perhaps saving their feelings for a special occasion. People who — unlike the mining operators in the gulf — have a blowout preventer that works all too well.
Sang-froid has its place, especially during a crisis; but so does Sigmund Freud, who described the potential downside of suppressed passions. Those exhortations being directed at the president could be just as easily be turned on countless co-workers, spouses, friends (or oneself):
Lose it. Just once. See what happens.
“One reason we’re so attuned to others’ emotions is that, when it’s a real emotion, it tells us something important about what matters to that person,” said James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford University. When it’s suppressed or toned down, he added, “people think, damn it, you’re not like us, you don’t care about the same things we do.”
Rigorous study of what psychologists call emotion regulation is fairly new, and for obvious reasons has focused far more on untamed passions than on the domesticated variety. Runaway emotion defines many mental disorders, after all; restraint is typically associated with good mental health, from childhood through later life.
Yet social functioning is a different matter. Research in the past few years has found that people develop a variety of psychological tools to manage what they express in social situations, and those techniques often become subconscious, affecting interactions in unintended ways. The better that people understand their own patterns, the more likely they are to see why some emotionally charged interactions go awry — whether from too little control or, in the president’s case, perhaps too much.
Most scientists agree that a person’s range of possible emotional expression is a matter of inborn temperament. Growing up is, in one sense, a living education in how to manage that temperament so it elicits help from others and does not torment oneself.
Psychologists divide regulation strategies into two broad categories: pre-emptive, occurring before an emotion is fully felt; and responsive, coming afterward. The best known of the latter category, and one of the first learned, is simple suppression. First-graders will cover a smile with their hand when a classmate does something embarrassing; in time, many become far more adept, reflexively masking surprise, alarm, even rage with a poker face.
Suppression, while clearly valuable in some situations (no laughing at funerals, please), has social costs that are all too familiar to those who know its cold touch. In one 2003 Stanford study, researchers found that people instructed to wear a poker face while discussing a documentary about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made especially stressful conversation partners.
In another, published last year, psychologists followed 278 men and women as they entered college, giving questionnaires and conducting interviews. Those who scored highest on measures of emotion suppression had the hardest time making friends.
“An individual who responds to the college transition by becoming emotionally guarded in the first few days,” the authors wrote, will most likely miss opportunities for friendships.
Pre-emptive techniques can work in more subtle ways. One of these is simple diversion, reflexively focusing on the good and ignoring the bad — rereading the praise in an evaluation and ignoring or dismissing any criticism. A 2009 study led by Derek Isaacowitz of Brandeis University found that people over 55 were much more likely than those aged 25 and under to focus on positive images when in a bad mood — thereby buoying their spirits. The younger group was more likely to focus on negative images when feeling angry or down.
More striking, Dr. Isaacowitz found in another study that older people were twice as likely as younger ones to be “rapid regulators” — people whose mood bounced back quickly, sometimes within minutes, after ruminating on depressing memories.
“We have found in general that older people tend to regulate their emotions faster, and are not as motivated to explore negative information, to engage negative images, as younger people are,” Dr. Isaacowitz said. “And it makes some sense, that younger adults would explore the negative side of things, that they need to and maybe want to experience them — to experience life — as they develop their own strategies to regulate.”
Socially speaking, in short, the ability to shrug off feelings of disgust or outrage may suit an older group but strike younger people as inauthentic, even callous.
Finally, people may choose the emotions they feel far more often than they are aware — and those choices, too, can trip up social interactions. A series of recent experiments led by Maya Tamir, a psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Boston College, has found that people subconsciously prime themselves to feel emotions they believe will be most useful to them in an anticipated situation. The researchers call these instrumental emotions.
In one experiment, published last year, Dr. Tamir and Brett Q. Ford of Boston College prepared participants to play a video game in which they would be hunted down by monsters. Before playing, the study volunteers rated what type of music they wanted to hear and what kind of autobiographical memories they preferred to recall.
They were much more likely to want to recall fearful memories, and to prefer to listen to ominous music, than others who were expecting to play a video game in which they would build a theme park or solve a simple puzzle. They were, the authors argue, adopting an emotion that would serve them well in the game.
Dr. Tamir has found similar results in a variety of situations, showing for example that people role-playing as landlords will ramp up their anger before confronting a tenant about late rent.
Mr. Obama’s analytical composure probably comes so easily because it has repeatedly served him well, Dr. Tamir said.
“If staying calm and patient and confident is what has worked for you in crisis situations in the past,” she said, “then subconsciously it may become automatic. And the more automatic it becomes, the less of the actual anger, or panic, you feel.”
All of which makes it a treacherous task to express the real thing, at exactly the moment and pitch that people expect. For people like the president, said Dr. Gross of Stanford, it means throwing the switch on two psychological systems at once: the habitual, analytical one (power down) and the instrumental one (power up).
“If that process interrupts expression even a little, people notice,” Dr. Gross said. “We have an exceptional capacity to track whether the timing and morphology of an emotion is correct.”
The most socially skilled among us — those who project the emotions they intend, when they intend to — are not wedded to any one strategy, Dr. Hofmann argues. In a paperpublished last month with Todd Kashdan of George Mason University, he proposed that emotion researchers adopt a questionnaire to measure three components of regulation: concealing (i.e., suppression), adjusting (quickly calming anger, for instance) and tolerating (openly expressing emotion).
“These are each valuable strategies, in different situations,” Dr. Hofmann said. “The people who get into trouble socially, I believe, are the ones who are inflexible — who stick to just one.”