In a time where human kind has come to love to control every single aspect of live, sayings like “Control your emotion, or it will control you”, gain relevance. But how does this process of gaining control through regulation work? And can one even speak about conscious ‘control’ through emotion regulation? Or is the process of emotion regulation rather a subconscious, automatic process? Looking at emotion regulation from five different perspectives, this paper provides an overview of the broad field of emotion regulation. As suggested by Cornelius (1995), the perspectives considered include the Darwinian, the Jamesian, the Cognitive and the Social Constructivist perspective. Additionally, as the field of neuroscience recently made some important contributions to emotion regulation, it is also considered in this paper as a fifth perspective.
Emotion regulation “refers to how we try to influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express these emotions” (Gross, 2008: 497). Although emotions play an important role in our life, when they occur at the wrong time, the wrong level of intensity or the wrong type, there may be a great motivation to regulate them (Gross, 2008). This regulation encompasses changing one or several aspects of emotion which may include “the eliciting situation, attention, appraisal, subjective experience, behavior, or physiology“ (Bargh & Williams, 2007 and Gross & Thompson, 2007 in Mauss, Bunge & Gross, 2007). The result of such regulation may be diminishment or augmentation of an emotions amplitude or duration (ibid). It may also lead to a total suppression of an emotion (Gross, 2008). Although emotion regulation is often related to the turning down of experiential as well behavioral aspects of negative emotions, it may also refer to positive emotions (ibid). Unquestionable emotion regulation may refer to different processes. Categorized based on the point in time of the emotion-generative process they have their primary impact, Gross distinguishes between situation selection, situation modification, attentional deployment, cognitive change and response modulation (Gross, 2008). The first four of these processes are “antecedent- focused” as they take place before an emotion arises, while, contrasting, “response- focused” strategies may be utilized after an emotional response has been generated (ibid). Furthermore, researchers have distinguished between unconscious and conscious emotion regulation processes (Mayer & Salovey, 1995) as well as between automatic and controlled ones (Bargh & Williams, 2007).
Charles Darwin, often considered to be the founding father of emotion research, argued that emotions have been shaped by evolutionary pressures (Cornelius, 1995). Emotional expressions are thus remnants of once beneficial behavior (ibid). It therefore may be argued that emotions are regulated in a way, that only those emotions that over time proved to increase survival chances were passed on to future generations and are still prevalent today. According to Tooby and Cosmides the structure of the human past is reflected by our emotions (Tobb & Cosmides, 1990) and their regulation “should be beneficial to an individual’s success of survival and fitness” (Calini, Ferri & Duman, 2009). There is some evidence that certain processes of emotion regulation have a genetic basis. Twin studies have produced evidence concerning the partial heritability of emotion regulation and molecular genetics have identified specific genes such as 5-HTTLPR, COMPT and MAOA to be associated with emotion regulation (ibid).
Furthermore, emotion regulation may take place through the regulation of facial expressions. According to the Darwinian Perspective there is a close link between emotions and expression and research has shown that emotional experiences correspond with the facial activity observed (Ekman, Friesen & Ancoli, 1980). According to McIntosh, “the ability of voluntary facial actions [… ] indicate[s] that individuals can regulate their emotions by controlling their facial movements“ (McIntosh, 1996: 19). The facial feedback hypothesis, which states that the control of expressions impacts the underlying emotion, should therefore be considered (Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989). According to Gross, this form of response modulation may not only amplify emotional experiences but may also cause emotions to be muted when facial activity is inhibited (Gross, 2008). Although this hypothesis could potentially also be classified as Jamesian, since Jamesians believe that facial actions as a type of bodily reaction can create an emotional state, it is the Darwinians that suggests that they may actually regulate emotions. Ekmanns and Friensen’s ‘Display rules’ defined “as procedures learned early in life for the management of affect displays […] prescribe what to do about the display of each affect in different social settings” may “deintensify, intensify, neutralize, or mask” facial expressions (Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969:87). Although, Darwinians believe emotional expressions to be universal, ‘Display rules’ as such may vary across cultures.