Summary: A person’s natural level of anxiety may have a significant impact on results for lab-based studies of emotion and anxiety.
Source: Duke University
For decades, psychologists’ study of emotional health and well-being has involved contrived laboratory experiments and self-report questionnaires to understand the emotional experiences and strategies study participants use to manage stress.
But those hundreds of studies may have taken for granted a pretty big complicating factor, argues a new study from Duke University and Dartmouth College.
The study, which appears March 12 in PLOS One, says the background level of anxiety a person normally experiences may interfere with how they behave in the lab setting.
“The paper is not saying all of this work is wrong,” emphasized first author Daisy Burr, a graduate student in psychology and neuroscience at Duke. “It’s just saying, ‘Hey, there’s this really interesting unknown here that we should all be examining.’ “
Most of the research on emotional regulation has focused on two strategies: Reappraisal and suppression. People who are naturally more anxious tend toward suppressing these feelings or pretending them away, “but that’s kind of a surface-level technique that’s not going to have any long-term impact,” Burr said.
The reappraisal tactic has people face the stressor and try to change what it means to them – overcoming their fears – and that tends to be a little more long-lasting, she said.
Indeed, prior research finds that people who employ reappraisal more often are less anxious and depressed, Burr said.
Psychologists care about emotion regulation because it helps keep us all sane and on track.
“Emotion regulation is a buffer against the really negative effects that stress can have on your life,” Burr said. “Stress is always going to be there, but it doesn’t have to ruin your life.”
Burr wondered how anxiety influences the way people naturally tend to regulate their emotions.
She and two colleagues taught Dartmouth undergraduates how to suppress or reappraise an emotional stimulus, and then put them through a standardized emotional regulation training protocol that has been used in hundreds of studies. For each set of stimuli, the participants were instructed to actively suppress or reappraise their response or simply to look at it without receiving any instruction.
As participants went through this set of stimuli, the researchers measured three physiological responses: Skin conductance (a measure of stress used in the polygraph test) and two sensors for the activity of specific facial muscles.
The three measures were then combined to create a “signature” for each test participant that captured when they were suppressing, reappraising or naturally engaging without instruction.
Researchers then compared response signatures for all 52 participants and found in the uninstructed situation where they weren’t told how to cope, people who were naturally more anxious were more likely to suppress. Those who were less anxious tended toward reappraisal.
While that all fits with what the research would predict, they also found that anxiety, not self-reported regulation strategies, predicted how participants were regulating.
“There’s a disconnect between how people are self-reporting their emotion regulation and how they’re regulating in the lab,” Burr said. “A person’s anxiety may be this more fundamental process or disposition that kind of overrides how you regulate, at least in unrealistic environments, such as in the lab,” Burr said.
And if that’s true, Burr said future research should explore this disconnect to better understand the right way to rely on self-report measures and how to realistically study emotion — inside and outside the lab.
“This is really a puzzle,” Burr said. “It could be that people are not self-reporting their true regulation styles, or it could be that how people are regulating in the lab isn’t mapping on to how they’re regulating in the real world.”
Part of the answer to this problem entails finding study methods that get out of the lab, which Burr and her Duke Ph.D. adviser Gregory Samanez-Larkin have already done.
They used text messaging during different times of the day to reach study participants where they are and assess their emotions in that moment. As a bonus, they can use these tools to study people outside the traditional demographics of lab studies: Undergraduate students who were enticed to the lab by coffee cards or extra credits in Psych 101.
Anxiety, not regulation tendency, predicts how individuals regulate in the laboratory: An exploratory comparison of self-report and psychophysiology
Anxiety influences how individuals experience and regulate emotions in a variety of ways. For example, individuals with lower anxiety tend to cognitively reframe (reappraise) negative emotion and those with higher anxiety tend to suppress negative emotion.
Research has also investigated these individual differences with psychophysiology. These lines of research assume coherence between how individuals regulate outside the laboratory, typically measured with self-report, and how they regulate during an experiment. Indeed, performance during experiments is interpreted as an indication of future behavior outside the laboratory, yet this relationship is seldom directly explored.
To address this gap, we computed psychophysiological profiles of uninstructed (natural) regulation in the laboratory and explored the coherence between these profiles and a) self-reported anxiety and b) self-reported regulation tendency. Participants viewed negative images and were instructed to reappraise, suppress or naturally engage. Electrodermal and facial electromyography signals were recorded to compute a multivariate psychophysiological profile of regulation. Participants with lower anxiety exhibited similar profiles when naturally regulating and following instructions to reappraise, suggesting they naturally reappraised more.
Participants with higher anxiety exhibited similar profiles when naturally regulating and following instructions to suppress, suggesting they naturally suppressed more. However, there was no association between self-reported reappraisal or suppression tendency and psychophysiology. These exploratory results indicate that anxiety, but not regulation tendency, predicts how individuals regulate emotion in the laboratory.
These findings suggest that how individuals report regulating in the real world does not map on to how they regulate in the laboratory. Taken together, this underscores the importance of developing emotion-regulation interventions and paradigms that more closely align to and predict real-world outcomes.