Can We Control Our Emotions?

image: Getty
September 10, 2013

Often, our emotions are wonderfully helpful. Think of enjoying yourself with friends and family, building connections through shared laughter. Or of becoming angry enough at a social wrong that you marshal the energy to try to work for justice. Or even of feeling a flush of embarrassment when you mix up an acquaintance’s name, a nonverbal signal that says “I’m aware of my faux pas,” and helps repair the social fabric. In each of these cases – and many others – our emotions play a vital role, helping us pursue valued goals and build ties with others we care about.

But just because our emotions are often helpful doesn’t mean they’re always helpful.  Who hasn’t seen a frazzled toddler crying at the checkout counter because he can’t have candy? Or his equally frazzled parent modeling the top 10 things never to do when you’re a parent?  Who hasn’t marveled over otherwise grown-up people getting angry enough about each other’s driving to step out of their cars to duke it out by the side of the road? Or witnessed the desolation that sadness can bring after a crushing loss, or during a depressive episode? In each of these cases – and many others – emotions are either the wrong type or intensity for a given situation. This makes emotions harmful rather than helpful, motivating us to try to control them.

But can we really control our emotions? 

Many people would say not. This is because they think of emotion as arising out of the blue, unbidden, with a life of its own. How could one will oneself to feel love, or any other emotion? It would seem that emotions are just not the kinds of things that can be willed into (or out of) existence. I want to argue that we can in fact control our emotions, but before saying why, two points of confusion need to be addressed.

The first confusion is triggered by the word “control.”  For many, this word brings to mind suppression. As in:  “The health care workers tried desperately to control the typhoid outbreak.” Typhoid is bad, and control in this case means getting rid of typhoid.  By this logic, “emotional control” suggests eliminating or suppressing emotions. However, I’d like to propose a broader meaning, one that’s closer to “harness” or “regulate”.   This gives the question a different flavor, as we consider whether we can (and should) “harness” or “regulate” our emotions.

The second confusion has to do with who is doing the regulating. If something is being regulated, it seems only natural to wonder who the heck is doing the regulating. Sometimes, the answer isn’t much of a mystery, as when a teacher calms an out-of-control child in the classroom. Here it seems obvious that it’s the teacher who’s regulating the child’s emotions. The trouble comes when we try to imagine a single person regulating his own emotions. In this case, who is the controller and who is the controlled? My answer to this question is that regulation is possible because of the way the different systems in the brain interact with one another. There isn’t a little person inside who is controlling us. All we have is interacting brain systems whose joint action can lead to changes in how emotions unfold. Related Questions Can Virtuous Habits Be Cultivated? Can You Learn to Control Your Mind?

If we can avoid getting tripped up by these potential confusions, one of the compelling things about the question of whether we can regulate our emotions is that it – like most deep questions – has been around for a long time. Indeed, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus offered advice on how to regulate emotions by changing one’s perceptions and thoughts. One of the people who took his advice was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations are a testament to the real-world value of emotional control.

In the past few decades, affective scientists have begun to translate this long-standing interest in emotion regulation into an empirical science. Thousands of studies are now being published on emotion regulation each year. Happily for all of us, these studies are yielding important new insights into emotional control.

One key insight is that people can and do regulate their emotions. Many times, they regulate their emotions by decreasing negative emotions, or increasing positive emotions. This makes sense. But it turns out that people also on occasion decrease positive emotions, such as when they’re in a great mood, but need to comfort a discouraged friend. People also increase negative emotions, such as when athletes “get angry” before an important match.

A second key insight is that people regulate their emotions in lots of different ways. Indeed, the sheer number of ways people regulate emotions is a bit overwhelming, and researchers have tried to find ways to organize them all. One popular approach starts with the idea that emotions unfold over time through a series of steps. These steps can be summarized by saying that emotions arise in situations that are attended to and evaluated in particular ways, and it is the way a person thinks about the situation he is in that triggers the changes in feeling, behavior, and physiology that we associate with having an emotion. 

Using this idea about how emotions unfold, one can distinguish five families of emotion regulation processes based on which step a person is trying to change. The first family is called situation selection. This refers to choosing which situations we do (and don’t) get ourselves into based on what impact we think they’ll have on our emotions. The second family is called situation modification. This refers to doing things to change the situation we’re in so that our emotions will change. The third family is called attentional deployment. Here we’re trying to change how we’re attending to the situation so that our emotions will change. The fourth family is called cognitive change. This approach relies on changing how one is thinking about the situation in order to change the emotions one has. Finally, the fifth family is called response modulation. Here the person is trying to modify one or more of the emotional responses after the emotion is already underway.

A third key insight is that which strategy a person uses matters. In general, it appears that strategies that come earlier on are more effective than strategies that come later on. This makes good intuitive sense. After all, “a stitch in time saves nine.”  Many studies have demonstrated the truth of this idea. For example, one study contrasted reappraisal (a form of cognitive change) with suppression (a form of response modulation). Participants were invited into the laboratory to watch negative emotion-eliciting films. Some participants were instructed to respond naturally. Others were instructed to think differently about the films, as a scientist might (reappraisal). Others still were instructed to hide any emotions they might have (suppression). Findings indicated that only reappraisal made participants feel less negative, and suppression actually increased participants’ blood pressure responses to the film. Other studies have extended these findings, showing that suppression not only negatively affects the person who is suppressing; it can even negatively affect the person who is interacting with the person who is suppressing.

Findings such as these have encouraged researchers to try to teach people to use more helpful forms of emotion regulation. For example, in one study of married couples, half were instructed to use cognitive reappraisal when dealing with difficult conversations with the partner. Findings revealed that this 21-minute intervention produced clear differences in marital satisfaction, with higher levels of satisfaction in couples who had reappraised than in those who hadn’t reappraised.

This is not to say that reappraisal (or any other strategy) is always good. It is easy to think of cases where people use their thinking to avoid making needed changes in a marriage or a job, in which case short-term relief brings long-term pain. It is also clear that suppression (or any other strategy) is not always bad. But findings like these suggest that it may be possible to teach healthier forms of emotional regulation, and other studies have shown benefits in many different emotionally charged contexts, from psychotherapy to middle school to the middle east.

So – coming back to the question with which we began – can emotions be controlled?  My answer is yes – in the sense that we can shape or influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express these emotions. Sometimes we do this to increase our emotions, and sometimes we do this to decrease our emotions.  We can regulate our emotions in lots of different ways, and different strategies have different consequences, both for the person who is doing the regulating, and for the people who are interacting with him.  And the good news is that we can become more skillful at regulating our emotions if we try.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you buy the idea that emotions can be helpful as well as unhelpful?

2. What determines whether emotion regulation is useful or not?

3. Why do people regulate as they do, and can they learn new ways of regulating?