Summary: Smiling or hiding real emotions when feeling sad or anxious may not be as maladaptive as previously believed, a new study reports.
Source: University of Ottawa
A study from the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences has revealed the limitations of manipulating emotional responses to counter distressing moments, with participants—particularly women—relying on spontaneous regulated emotion rather than a forced response to cope.
These findings cast doubt on past research that suggested using a poker face or a forced smile as go-to options for supressing emotional expression.
The project was part of first author Nancy Bahl’s Ph.D. thesis in Clinical Psychology, conducted under the supervision of Allison Ouimet, an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at uOttawa. Drs. Bahl and Ouimet answered questions about the research.
What is this research about?
“People use emotion regulation strategies to try to change the type, intensity or duration of their emotional experiences. There is a lot of research suggesting that some strategies, like changing our perspective, are more helpful than others, and there is a huge body of research suggesting that hiding our emotional expression when we’re distressed actually makes us feel worse. One type of therapy teaches people to put on a ‘half-smile’ when experiencing distress to improve their mood. These two bodies of research contradict each other.
“We found no effect whatsoever of keeping a poker face or smiling when watching negative pictures on participants’ self-reported mood, physiology, or memory, in contrast to past research. Most importantly, at the end of the study, participants reported that regardless of what they were instructed to do to manage their emotions, the overwhelming majority reported using other emotion regulation strategies, like changing their perspective about the pictures. In other words, experimental research that tests one emotion regulation strategy against another may have an important flaw: that participants regulate their emotions spontaneously, no matter what experimental condition they’re in.”
Can you explain the process behind your research?
“We recruited a relatively diverse sample of young women, 144 in total. When participants came into the lab, we measured their mood and their baseline sympathetic nervous system activity. We randomly assigned them to one of three conditions: expressive suppression (poker face), expressive dissonance (smile), or control (show your emotions the way you usually would). Each condition received different instructions on how to manage the negative emotions they might feel when looking at upsetting pictures.
“We measured their sympathetic nervous system activity during the picture-viewing task and asked them to report their mood during the task. They then completed a surprise task testing their memory for the pictures that they saw. They ended the experiment by completing questionnaires about how they managed their emotions during the task.
“We were surprised to find no differences between the conditions. When we looked at what participants reported at the end of the study, we were surprised by just how many people used other emotion regulation strategies on top of the one they were asked to use. This casts doubt on past findings.”
What conclusions should we take from this?
“Hiding your emotions or smiling when you’re feeling anxious or sad might not be as maladaptive as we previously thought—at least for young women. Perhaps more importantly, it might not be all that useful to compare one emotion regulation strategy against another in research.
“Researchers need to focus more on how people choose which strategies they use, in which types of situation. For example, it might cause problems in your relationship if you are frequently hiding your feelings from your partner, but it might also cause problems at your work if you never hide your feelings, even from your boss at an important meeting. No strategy is always helpful or harmful; instead, it is probably better to be flexible about which strategy you use, depending on the context.”
Smiling won’t necessarily make you feel better: Response-focused emotion regulation strategies have little impact on cognitive, behavioural, physiological, and subjective outcomes
Background and objectives
Response-focused emotion regulation (RF-ER) strategies may alter people’s evoked emotions, influencing intrapersonal outcomes. Researchers have found that participants engaging in expressive suppression (ES; a RF-ER strategy) experience increased sympathetic nervous system arousal, affect, and lowered memory accuracy. It is unclear, however, whether all RF-ER strategies exert maladaptive effects. Expressive dissonance (ED; displaying an expression opposite from how one feels) is a RF-ER strategy, and likely considered “maladaptive”. As outlined by the facial feedback hypothesis, however, smiling may increase positive emotion, suggesting it may be an adaptive strategy. We compared the effects of ED and ES to a control condition on psychophysiology, memory, and affect, to assess whether ED is an adaptive RF-ER strategy, relative to ES, in response to negative stimuli. We recruited women only to account for known gender-based differences in emotion regulation.
We randomly assigned 144 women-identifying participants to engage in ED, ES, or to naturally observe, while viewing negative and arousing images. We recorded electrodermal activity and self-reported affect throughout and participants completed memory tasks after the picture task.
We ran a series of repeated measures and one-way ANOVAs and found no differences between groups across outcomes.
The generalizability of our findings may be limited to young, undergraduate women.
Engaging in ES or ED may not differentially impact outcomes among young, undergraduate women, shedding doubt on a conclusion in past literature that specific strategies are categorically adaptive or maladaptive. Future research exploring RF-ER strategies among diverse populations is warranted.
About this emotion research news
Original Research: Closed access.
“Smiling won’t necessarily make you feel better: Response-focused emotion regulation strategies have little impact on cognitive, behavioural, physiological, and subjective outcomes” by Nancy Bahl et al. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.