The efficiency of intrinsic emotion regulation

In his widely accepted theoretical model of emotion regulation, Gross argues that emotion regulation is a process with several possible entry points and strategies (see e.g. Gross, 1998; Gross & Thompson, 2007). Gross distinguishes five distinct emotion regulation families, which he divides into two broad categories: antecedent-focused and response focused. The former type of regulation occurs before emotion-eliciting appraisals give rise to full-blown emotional responses, whereas the latter type of regulation follows only after the response has been generated. Two forms of antecedent-focused regulation, attentional deployment and cognitive change, in particular, allow extensive modification of emerging emotional responses, including their type. These two strategies also constitute the main forms of intrinsic emotion regulation.

Attentional deployment and cognitive change operate at early stages in the emotion-generative process. The main attentional strategies are distraction and concentration. Distraction focuses attention on different aspects of the situation with the purpose of avoiding an emerging emotion, whereas concentration draws attention to the emotional features of a situation, thus amplifying the process of emotion generation. Looking away from aversive events and focusing on pleasant ones are ways of attentional deployment. Cognitive change occurs one step further in this process as a way of altering the meaning of an emotion-eliciting situation or its implications to the individual by means of a reappraisal or reappraisals that change the emotional impact of the situation. An emotional construal of the situation can be modified by such means as a reappraisal of one's coping potential that may transform a nascent humiliation into anger, for instance, or downward social comparison that counters or decreases the impact of negative social emotions by revising one's emotional construal of the situation into a more positive one.

Several empirical studies have compared the efficiency of reappraisal and suppression - the only response-focused regulation strategy - in the modification of emotional responses. These studies have established that reappraisal is an effective means of modifying all aspects of emotion - autonomic physiology, action tendencies, motor expression, and feeling state; even the type of emotion - whereas suppression is merely capable of dampening emotional expression (see e.g. John & Gross, 2004, 2007):

Reappraisal - which occurs early in the emotion-generative process before emotion-response tendencies have been fully generated- permits the modification of the entire emotional sequence, including the experience of more positive and less negative emotion, without notable physiological, cognitive, or interpersonal costs. By contrast, suppression - which comes relatively late in the emotion-generative process- primarily modifies the behavioural aspect of the emotion-response tendencies, without reducing the experience of negative emotion. (John & Gross, 2007, p. 352-3)

Consequently, researchers of emotion regulation promote reappraisal as an adaptive and "healthy" form of emotion regulation in comparison to suppression that consumes cognitive resources "that could otherwise be used for optimal performance in the social contexts in which the emotions arise" (ibid. p. 353). Together, attentional deployment and reappraisal manifest the capacity of cognition to shape even noncognitively elicited emotions during their generation as these emotion regulation strategies draw on similar cognitive processes and mechanisms as other forms of cognitive control (Ochsner & Gross, 2005, 2007).

The efficiency of attentional deployment and reappraisal in moulding emotional responses is based on the integration of bottom-up and top-down appraisal processes in emotion generation and regulation. Ochsner and Gross (2007, p. 89) argue that "emotion generation and regulation involve the interaction of appraisal systems, such as the amygdala, that encode the affective properties of stimuli in a bottom-up fashion, with control systems implemented in prefrontal and cingulate cortex that support controlled top-down stimulus appraisals". Emotions can be generated and modulated by either bottom-up or top-down processes. Therefore, "once bottom-up generation has begun (and sometimes even before, if one anticipates a negative event), top-down processes can regulate, redirect, and alter the way in which triggering stimuli are being (or will be) appraised" (ibid., p. 90). Reappraisal functions in this manner, reinterpreting the meaning of an emotionally evocative stimulus and leading the appraisal system to respond to the new description. Yet it is no exception to the general pattern of emotional processing since both emotion generation and regulation follow from interactions between top-down cognitive appraisal processes which control bottom-up affective appraisal processes. The brain areas that are active in both emotion generation and regulation overlap to such an extent that "there may not be brain centers uniquely dedicated to emotion generation or emotion regulation per se", as Oschner, Ray, Hughes, McRae, Cooper, Weber, Gabrieli and Gross (2009, p. 1330) point out. Accordingly, individual human emotions fall somewhere in the automatic - controlled continuum, always manifesting some degree of both types of processing.

The generation of an emotion episode results from a heterogeneous network of bottom-up (stimulus-driven) and top-down (goal or organism-driven) processes that are organised into a coherent interpretation and action plan. All this occurs in parallel, and in real time probably happens in the blink of an eye. The result is an emotional episode that people experience more or less as a gestalt. (Barrett, Ochsner, & Gross, 2007, p. 194)

Together, these considerations show that emotion generation is not an impervious black box between eliciting appraisals and programme-like response tendencies but a process that can be penetrated and influenced by cognitive regulation at several points. Even so, the seeming automaticity of many instances of intrinsic emotion regulation demands an explanation before we can justifiably turn the pervasive role of regulation in human emotions into an argument for the essential involvement of cognition in ordinary human emotions. How can nonintentional, effortless, implicit, and nonconscious regulation that appears as a direct opposite of cognitive activity nevertheless qualify as such?

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