We have all experienced the occasional “flash” of anger or anxious “episode” that seems to just appear out of nowhere. Sometimes, we even notice emotions in others before they seem aware of it themselves. This peculiar experiential feature often leaves us with the impression that emotions are automatic and mysterious events that, like non-mental events, can just happen to us.
Historically, research on emotion self-regulation has focused on the conscious, deliberate control of emotions as a bulwark against unbridled and maladaptive reactivity. More recently, researchers investigating the automaticity of emotion processing have proposed and elaborated on a new component to the traditionally conceived regulation system. Automatic Emotion Regulation (AER) involves the shaping of emotion functions through nonconscious sensory activated schemas. AER works much the same way as other forms of priming; an individual perceives a relevant stimulus that activates the goal representation without conscious awareness or active pursuit of the goal. A growing body of research indicates that positive nonconscious goal pursuit may also be beneficial when more deliberate means of control are impaired due to excessive cognitive load.
One type of cognitive (deliberate) self-regulation strategy often associated with positive psychosocial outcomes like better interpersonal relationships and higher levels of reported well-being is reappraisal, or altering the meaning of emotional stimuli before the emotion is experienced. In a forthcoming study in the journal, Emotion, researchers at Yale University examined whether a nonconscious reappraisal goal would have similar regulatory effects as a conscious one. They used words like “reassessed, perspective, appraised again, carefully analyzed, strategy” embedded in a sentence unscramble task to moderate emotional reactivity (as measured by changes in heart rate) in an anxiety-inducing task.
Indeed, in one experiment they found that both nonconscious priming and conscious reappraisal instructions resulted in significantly less reactivity compared to the control group, while a second experiment found the nonconscious reappraisal group also exhibited marginally less reactivity than the conscious reappraisal group.
The present study expands on neuroimaging findings from a study earlier this year that demonstrated a common neural system for both instructed and spontaneous reappraisal. In that study, a self-reported propensity for daily appraisal use predicted decreased amygdala activation and increased prefrontal and parietal activation even in the absence of explicit instruction.
It is unclear whether the reported tendency of individuals to use reappraisal in daily life is dispositional in nature or whether it is a skill that once well learned may become nonconsciously employed. Regardless, the burgeoning research on nonconscious emotion regulation reiterates an incredible feature of human cognition, namely that innumerable nonconscious cues embedded in our environment can profoundly impact the way we think and feel.
Barrett, L.F., Ochsner, K.N.,&Gross, J.J. (2007). On the automaticity of emotion. In J. Bargh (Ed.). Social psychology and the unconscious: The automaticity of higher mental processes (pp. 173-217) . New York: Psychology Press.
Mauss, I. B., Bunge, S. A.,&Gross, J. J. (2007). Automatic emotion regulation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 146-167.
Williams, L. E., Bargh, J. A., Nocera, C. C.,&Gray, J. R. (in press). The unconscious regulation of emotion: Nonconscious reappraisal goals modulate emotional reactivity. Emotion.
Drabant, E.M., McRae, K., Manuck, S.B., Hariri, A.R.,&Gross, J.J. (2009). Individual differences in typical reappraisal use predict amygdala and prefrontal responses. Biological Psychiatry;65:367–373.