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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 1

The Nuts and Bolts of Emotional Sobriety

When to engage with negative feelings and when to ignore them

The results were unambiguous. Most of the volunteers opted for cognitive engagement when confronted with a low-intensity photograph, and most chose to distract themselves from a high-intensity one, suggesting that switching strategies is a normal, healthy way of dealing with negativity in life. The researchers also gave the volunteers a “surprise” memory test at the end of the experiment and found—as expected—that memory for the emotional photographs was impaired whenever volunteers opted for distraction and disengagement. This result suggests that distraction, as a strategy for emotional regulation, works by not allowing the emotional information to enter memory at all.

This Won’t Hurt a Bit
Intense images are powerful stimuli for priming negative emotions, but even so the scientists wanted a test that was closer to real-life events. In another experiment, they used the anticipation of electrical shocks to create a measurable state of anxiety for volunteers. They hooked them up to electrodes, with which they administered 20 shocks of varying intensity. Just prior to each shock, the volunteers viewed a brief written description of the intensity level of the upcoming shock, allowing them time—12 seconds on average—to choose and use a strategy for regulating their anxiety before getting zapped. As before, the volunteers spoke out loud about which cognitive strategy they chose. The scientists crunched together the data on shock intensity and cognitive choices, and the results were essentially the same as before. As reported in the online edition of Psychological Science in September, volunteers were much more likely to opt for a reappraisal strategy (“this one won’t be so bad”) when confronting an unpleasant but tolerable shock, and they were much more likely to try distracting themselves when they anticipated a strong and intensely painful shock. In short, people generally have the cognitive flexibility to adapt their regulatory choices for the situation at hand.

The finding that people naturally choose to engage with only mildly unpleasant emotions is not surprising. Reinterpretation of emotional events has long been known to be an effective coping strategy, and it is often taught as a part of cognitive-behavior therapy. The findings on distraction, however, run contrary to a long-held view that it is important to engage with intense emotional challenges—and that avoiding or “repressing” them is harmful. This interpretation has been steadily losing ground. Evidence is mounting that, under extremely adverse conditions, some emotional disengagement may indeed be tonic. This approach appears to be true for disaster victims; for people with severe, ruminating depression; and of course, for alcoholics in early recovery.

This article was originally published with the title "We're Only Human: The Nuts and Bolts of Emotional Sobriety."

(Further Reading)

  • Emotion-Regulation Choice. Gal Sheppes, Susanne Scheibe, Gaurav Suri and James J. Gross in Psychological Science. Published online September 29, 2011.
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