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.
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.