Sep. 20, 2000 Attempting to control one's reactions to an event has "cognitive costs" that weaken memory
WASHINGTON -- The way people go about controlling their reactions to emotional events affects their memory of the event, according to new research published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
That people can regulate the inner experience and outer expression of emotions is well documented in the psychological literature. Psychologists Jane M. Richards, Ph.D., of University of Washington and James J. Gross, Ph.D., of Stanford University sought to learn whether such efforts to control emotion have cognitive consequences.
Their research was designed to answer two specific questions. Does emotion regulation lead people to remember events differently than if they had not attempted to control their reactions? And, if emotional regulation does have discernible cognitive consequences, are these consequences the same for all forms of emotion regulation?
Drs. Richards and Gross suggest that there are many ways to regulate one's emotions, but that some ways of doing so may be particularly likely to impair one's ability to remember the details of an upsetting event. They believed that regulation strategies that occurred before the event, such as reappraisal or cognitive reframing (looking at a potentially emotional situation as a challenge rather than a threat) would have different cognitive demands than a strategy that was employed during the event such as emotional suppression.
They believe that expressive suppression, ("keeping a stiff upper lip") requires continual self-monitoring and self-correction which uses cognitive resources and therefore decreases the accuracy of the memory of the event. In contrast, the authors speculate, entering into a situation after having construed it in less emotional terms should preempt a full-blown response and thus eliminate the need for continual self-regulation, leaving memory for the details of the events that transpire intact.
To answer these questions, the researchers conducted three experiments. In the first experiment, the researchers showed a short clip from a contemporary film to 53 people (45% men, 55% women). The clip involved a married couple arguing over the husband's extramarital affair while their young daughter looks on. About half of the research participants were instructed to watch the clip and not let their feelings show as they watched (expressive suppression group). Participants in the control group were instructed only to watch and listen carefully to the clip.
Results showed that even through the two groups showed no difference in their emotional experience, participants in the expressive suppression group had poorer memory for what was said and done in the clip than did the control participants.
Next, to determine if the emotional intensity of the event mattered and if emotional regulation strategy would affect the results, the researchers conducted two additional experiments involving showing participants slides of people who had been injured. In these experiments, participants were asked to either show no expression when viewing the slides (expressive suppression) or adopt a neutral attitude and view the slides with the detached interest of a medical professional (reappraisal). A third group was simply asked to look at the slides.
As in their first experiment, Drs. Richards and Gross found that participants in the expressive suppression group showed poorer memory than did the control participants, but the second study showed that this finding was limited to verbal memory. When participants were asked to pick which in an array of subtly different versions of each slide had been shown earlier, suppression and control participants did equally well. In contrast, when participants were prompted to recall information that had been presented verbally with each slide, those in the suppression group remembered fewer details than those in the control group.
This pattern held for participants exposed to both strongly and weakly negative slides, suggesting that self-regulation demands similar cognitive resources regardless of the intensity of the event and therefore the emotions being generated, said the authors.
However, unlike expressive suppression, reappraisal did not impair memory. Participants in the reappraisal group -- those asked to adopt the neutral attitude of a medical profession -- actually performed better than the control group on nonverbal recall.
Extending their laboratory work to the field, Drs. Richards and Gross conducted a naturalistic study of emotion regulation and memory. Consistent with the experimental results, they found that people who tended to rely on expressive suppression in everyday life remembered fewer of the emotional events of their lives as compared to people who did not tend to rely on expressive suppression. As expected, however, the tendency to regulate emotions via reappraisal was not associated with any memory impairment.
Article: "Emotion Regulation and Memory: The Cognitive Costs of Keeping One's Cool," Jane M. Richards, Ph.D., University of Washington and James J. Gross, Ph.D., Stanford University, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 79, No. 3.
Full text of this article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and on the website at http://www.apa.org/journals/psp/psp793410.html
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