For handling negative emotions, it is better to reappraise a situation than to accept it or distract oneself from it. These were the results of a study involving psychology researchers at the University of Tartu. The study looked at the emotional reactions Hillary Clinton supporters had to the election of Donald Trump.
One of the authors of the study, a senior research fellow of affective psychology at the University of Tartu Institute of Psychology, Andero Uusberg, said that emotion regulation is often studied in laboratory conditions. For example, participants may be asked to deal with emotions elicited by a particular situation, such as arriving at work to discover that you have left your keys at home.
The laboratory approach is efficient, but a bit artificial. A more natural option is to have people regulate an emotional event that has actually happened to them. In this case, however, making sense of the data is more difficult because all people go through different events. “Essentially, there is a trade-off between laboratory control and real-life relevance”, Uusberg said.
The U.S. presidential election gave the international work group a unique opportunity to overcome this trade-off by surveying people in their natural environment with everyone experiencing the same event. All the more, the 2016 election won by Donald Trump did not leave anyone indifferent.
Researchers focused on people experiencing negative emotions. The study participants were observed during eight days after the election to see how their emotions changed. Every two days, the participants had to fill out a questionnaire. The main focus was on how strong their negative emotion was and what they did to change it. More specifically, the study looked at three strategies that people often use to alleviate negative emotions.
“First, you can distract your attention and not think of the emotion, put on the television and watch something fun or read a book. Second, you can reappraise the situation by sifting through the thought process preceding the emotion, trying to understand what is causing the upset and trying to correct any thought errors you might have committed. For instance, you may be overestimating the hopelessness of the situation. The third possibility is realizing that nothing can be changed and it is better to just accept the situation,” said Uusberg.
How people cope with their emotions is, to some extent, in their own hands. However, there are limits to this as some emotions are so strong that they cannot be fully regulated by oneself. Furthermore, while some people can regulate their emotions more easily, others might find it much more difficult.
“It would be misguided to conclude that everyone always has complete control over their emotions. Our research shows that this is not true. However, it is also not true that emotion would be a completely independent and therefore uncontrollable entity,” said Uusberg. He added that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes and people can often guide their emotions.
Reinterpret the emotion
In the context of 2016 U.S election, reappraisal was found to be slightly more efficient than acceptance or distraction. This finding aligns with results from many previous laboratory studies.
“The study also showed that reappraisal is easier when the emotion is not very intense. When I am highly affected by something, e.g., I am furious with someone, it does not sound very convincing to say to myself that it is not as bad as it seems,” said Uusberg. This was also concluded in the study, i.e., the higher the intensity of the feeling, the lower the likelihood that people would attempt to reappraise the situation.
Also, people who tried all three options for guiding their emotions from time to time were found to be the most successful. “When the emotion is very intense, it may be too early for reappraisal, so perhaps it is reasonable to first distract yourself, like you would in a real-life situation, when you count to ten if you are furious. This distracts your attention for a moment and may have the effect of bringing the emotion down so much that reappraisal becomes useful,” said Uusberg. Therefore, people who try different strategies have a higher likelihood of finding a suitable way of coping with an emotion depending on the phase of the emotion.
The study involved 202 people: 44 used mainly acceptance, 59 distraction, 58 reappraisal and 41 used all of them to some extent.
The translation of this article from Estonian Public Broadcasting science news portal Novaator was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.