Research Questions


What do people believe about emotions?

Emotions are pervasive and salient experiences, and humans often develop strong beliefs about which emotions they should feel and whether these emotions are controllable. We propose these beliefs are not simply intellectual musings. Rather, they critically influence emotional experiences and subsequent psychological health. Our work systematically examines these effects. 


Are there upsides of believing negative emotions are valuable?

According to a functional approach, each emotion has a context in which it can be useful, even negative emotions. For example, although fear feels bad, it can help us notice threats in our environment. Similarly, anger can help us successfully confront those who interfere with our goals. I propose that people understand when certain emotions are more useful, and in turn, want to feel emotions that are useful for the context, even if those emotions are negative. Because attaining shorter-term goals enhances longer-term outcomes, wanting to feel negative emotions in the right context may promote a healthier and happier life. This research reveals a new way of thinking about negative emotion: Not only are there contexts in which people believe feeling bad is valuable, but wanting to feel bad can be useful and healthy.   

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Are there downsides of believing positive emotions are valuable?

At first glance, people may assume that wanting to feel happy could never be harmful. Our research suggests otherwise – the context critically shapes when positive emotions are beneficial. Wanting to feel happiness in the wrong contexts or wanting to feel happy to an extreme degree can paradoxically lead to worse mood and health. 

Does this mean pursuing happiness always predicts worse outcomes? Thankfully, no. The context of the pursuit of happiness strongly influences its success. We've found that the downsides to pursuing happiness may be specific to individualistic cultural contexts (e.g., U.S.), and do not extend to more collectivistic cultural contexts that support a healthier, more socially-engaged pursuit of happiness (e.g., Russia, East Asia). The context critically shapes whether the pursuit of happiness is linked with better or worse well-being, and may do so via how people pursue happiness. 

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Are emotions controllable?

Experiencing a particular emotion should depend not only on what is useful but, even more fundamentally, whether people believe they have control over their emotions. Indeed, our research shows that people vary in this belief: while some believe emotions are malleable, others believe emotions are relatively overpowering and uncontrollable. These beliefs, in turn, should shape whether people even attempt to control or regulate their emotions, which should influence longer-term health. 

Whether emotions can be controlled is a particularly fundamental belief, but it is not the only belief people hold about the controllability of emotion. Another core belief is whether emotions should be controlled. If someone does not believe emotions should be controlled, it may protect them from the ill effects of entity beliefs. Overall, this research suggests that we are – each of us – emotion theorists. Beliefs about how emotions "work", in turn, shape emotional experiences and health. 

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How do people regulate their emotions?

Our emotional lives are guided by many factors. Although the beliefs we hold about emotions are one important factor, the strategies we use to regulate our emotions represent another crucial factor that shapes the emotions we experience, as well as our psychological and physical health. Because emotion regulation can take many forms, we target multiple theoretically-motivated strategies: trying to regulate emotional experiences (e.g., reappraisal), trying to regulate emotional expressions (e.g., suppression), and not trying to control emotions (e.g., acceptance).


Regulating emotional experiences: Reappraisal

Reappraisal involves re-evaluating an emotional situation to change its meaning, targeting the roots of emotional experiences (e.g., Gross, 1998). By regulating emotion at its source, reappraisal should effectively improve emotional experiences and predict greater longer-term psychological health as a result. Consistent with this theory, we’ve found that reappraisal benefits those at particular risk for depression: children with greater environmental stress who are also genetically sensitive to stress (by carrying a short allele in the serotonin transporter polymorphism). More recently, we have found that reappraisal is particularly beneficial for individuals from lower (vs. higher) socioeconomic status. This line of work aims to examine how the context (e.g., biological factors, sociocultural factors) shapes when reappraisal is helpful – and possibly harmful – for psychological and physical health.  

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Regulating emotional expressions: Suppression

Suppression involves inhibiting emotional expressions (e.g., hiding one’s anxiety during a stressful job interview). Because suppression primarily focuses only emotional expressions, it is not typically effective at improving emotional experiences. In fact, suppression tends to backfire, worsening emotional experiences and psychological health. But just as the benefits of reappraisal depend on the context in which it is used, the downsides of suppression also depend on context. As I recently argued (Ford & Mauss, 2015, Current Opinion in Psychology), studies linking suppression with worse psychological health have almost exclusively relied on individualistic cultural samples. Research that takes culture into account suggests that suppression is less costly for individuals from more collectivistic cultures that value group harmony over individual expression. Thus, context can also determine when less effective emotion regulation strategies are harmful versus harmless.

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Not trying to control emotions: Acceptance

Another way to respond to unwanted emotions is to decide not to control those emotions, but rather, to accept them. Somewhat paradoxically, simply accepting emotions may allow those emotions to pass more quickly (e.g., by reducing self-judgment and rumination). We’ve found that people who accept their emotions tend to experience lower negative emotions both in laboratory stress inductions and in their daily lives. This research suggests that acceptance is a relatively beneficial emotion regulation strategy. This strategy may also have the additional advantage of relying less on cognitive resources – a feature that may also render acceptance especially useful for individuals with fewer cognitive resources (e.g., older adults, stressed populations). 

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