The release of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street was the excuse I needed to finally plunk down some electronic cash and get the Rolling Stones Boxed Set. Among the treasure trove of all things Jagger/Richards also Emotional Rescue - by coincidence - or is it - the name of an article about some of the work my colleague Heather Urry is doing at Tufts University.
The research described relates to regulating emotion - apparently the topic of the week for this blog. The article in Tufts Journal is worthwhile reading and might be a good starting point to find out more about Heather's work. What I find fascinating is that in my mind much of the work on the cognitive regulation of emotion goes back to the pioneering work of Richard Lazarus fifty years ago. This is not a criticism regarding today's work but a praise to this early groundbreaking work. Already then, Lazarus and his colleagues demonstrated that the physiological response to a stressful film could be manipulated by either a text presented while the film was shown or given before to create an orientation that influenced the meaning of the bloody film. What these studies showed is that there is no fixed link between a stimulus and the emotion it would elicit, but that how the stimulus is appraised - what the meaning of this stimulus is - plays an important role. This was a revolutionary statement then and to some degree it still is now. It is the basis of teaching people to control their emotions by trying to think about certain things in a different way. GIven how much modern emotion research focuses on the brain it also underlines the plasticity of emotional processes. The brain might have a particular sensitivity to some things, such as faces, or snakes, but in many cases the reaction to a particular pattern is not fixed. The intermediate step between a stimulus and a response is the meaning of that stimulus. Today, rather than just looking at peripheral measures of emotional arousal, such as skin resistance, we can observe how brain activity in specific locations, such as the amygdala, is affected by how we think about a stimulus, such as an ugly picture. Consider the study by McRea and colleagues below as an example.
One of the most interesting challenges in emotion research is to integrate two types of processes - those which we can control by thought and automatic processes that often even happen outside of our awareness. I will be talking more about that ...
Now back to listening to some Stones ...
McRae, K., Ochsner, K. N., Mauss, I. B., Gabrieli, J. D. E. & Gross, J. J. (2008). Gender Differences in Emotion Regulation: An fMRI study of Cognitive Reappraisal. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 11, 145-162.
I remember very well that in the early stages of my PhD thesis I had intense discussions with John Lanzetta regarding emotion theory. John was a very emotional emotion researcher! Content-wise, I had been very much influenced by the second wave of appraisal theories that appeared at the time. Coming from Klaus Scherer's lab - in Giessen, Germany, at the time -I was very much into his component process model. At about the same time Craig Smith and Ira Roseman were publishing their seminal papers about their work with Phoebe Ellsworth.
Eventually John asked me to write an overview over emotion theories. I do not remember how long it took me, but the way I remember it, it was a massive file, amounting to about 100 pages. Probably it was less though. In any case, once I was done, John read it, approved of it, and said that I should put it away now. He said, there was no need to put it into the thesis itself because nobody would want to read it, but instead focus on the research I was going to do. I was quite furious. What a waste, I thought. Of course, that was not true. I have been talking about the history of emotion research ever since - I would call that a sleeper effect ...
However, the important lesson here was clearly not to get bogged down in some of the endless discussions between theorists. Know the theories yes, but do not waste too much time picking a fight. John pushed for data, empirical observations, and models that could make sense of these data. There was no question in my mind after discussing with him that emotions were foremost social processes. Thus, the regulation of emotion would always involve a social component. We regulate emotions in part because of social context, just as we regulate our social context with emotions (for example emotional displays). Our emotions are regulated because of the way that the different emotional components are connected in feedback loops. If the social rule states not to smile, and not smiling moderates how you feel, then social rules can modulate emotions via expression. Similarly, empathy is one of the bonds between people that imply that emotions are not just something inside of us, but also something between us. Emotions are social!
Today, when discussing these things I like to use expressions like
Emotions are self-regulating processes that serve nested intra- and interindividual regulatory functions. Psychological and neuroscience theories that deal with emotion regulation as an after-thought are bound to fail capturing the complexity of multi-level regulation that is part of typical emotional episodes.
Kappas, A. (2010). Emotion/Regulation: Never Tear Us Apart. Presented at the Emotion Preconference 2010 to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Meeting. Las Vegas, Nevada, January 28.
I just had the pleasure of reading a post on Jim Coan's new blog "Our Social Ecology", where Jim discusses the metaphor that humans might be the cheetahs of self-control. Interesting stuff and I am looking forward to reading the ongoing thread and recommend it highly.
Personally, I am fascinated by the recent interest in the regulation of emotion among emotion researchers. For me it is sort of a back to the roots. My PhD supervisor John Lanzetta (shown on the picture) was an engineer by training and he had the tendency to look not at just things, but at systems of things. How things interact. Not just what they do, but what makes them do what they do. Being more and more interested in emotions, John was fascinated in what we do to emotions, what emotions do to us, what we do to others and what others do to us. He did not focus so much on individuals, but at systems of individuals.
The topic of my thesis, at the time, in the late eighties, was "Control of Emotion". Basically, I was interested in how regulating facial activity impacts not only what we feel, but also our bodily responses. I looked also at distraction via breathing at different rates, at counting at different rates, but also what would happen to our feeling and bodily responses if we just put on a face, or breathed at a particular rate. In the next few days, I will talk a little bit about my own research in this area, as well as that of some colleagues, and I will later discuss the concept of auto-regulation of emotions - something I am currently writing about.
This week I attended the shooting of Die Große Show der Naturwunder in Freiburg. There will be a segment on felt and false smiles. This is a very interesting topic of course. Going back to Duchenne, we know that crows feet wrinkles can make the difference between a smile that looks "real" and one that does not. As it turns out, there is considerable empirical evidence that smiles showing this feature - it involves the contraction of the muscle orbicularis oculi are more likely to occur when somebody is indeed happy or amused, but that does not mean that all smiles with the wrinkles are genuine, and all smiles without are fake - just that the probability is higher. Other features that have been suggested to differ between posed and felt smiles relate to the timing - how long does it take for the smile to hit its maximum, or apex, how long does it stay there, how fast for it to disappear. It has also been suggested that felt smiles are more symmetrical than post ones. However, for this feature the empirical evidence is weakest. Some critical evidence regarding the differences of "felt" and "false" smiles has recently been presented by my colleagues Eva Krumhuber and Tony Manstead.
The show will be transmitted on July 1, 2010 at 20:15 in ARD
I intend to use this blog to report on some of my own research and pending or recent publications and presentations. However, more often I want to comment on new research that I read, or saw at a conference, or current events discussed in the media. Sometimes I will just raise some general issues related to emotion science. Currently, this web site is in development, but I expect this blog to become active in the summer of 2010. This is an interactive medium and comments/feedback are welcome.
Arvid Kappas is Professor of Psychology at Jacobs University Bremen. He has been conducting research on emotions for over three decades in the US, Canada, and in several European countries.