Performance and Learning Goals for Emotion Regulation

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In an attempt to feel better after experiencing negative emotion, different people use different strategies. Some talk about their problems with others, other try to distract themselves from thinking those negative thoughts, others try to find something positive from the experience.

There are two strategies which people can use on their own, without help from others: cognitive reappraisal, and thought suppression/rumination.  Cognitive reappraisal is a strategy so effective in dealing with negative emotion that an entire field of psychotherapy has developed around it – cognitive behavioral therapy. Essentially, it involves re-framing negative events and thoughts into positive ones.

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For example, since I was 13 I've experience a wide variety of health problems. At first, I thought about the problem negatively. However, I gradually started looking for the ‘silver-lining'. Because of those health problems, I developed a number of positive health habits, like regular exercise, I developed a degree of persistence and self-confidence I doubt I would have without having had such a large problem to tackle, and I learned how to think critically, having had to deal with dozens of doctors providing false information. Now when I think back to those years of physical pain, I see an experience to be proud of, rather than one to complain and feel bad about.

Thought suppression and rumination are as ineffective as cognitive reappraisal is effective. Rumination involves thinking through, over and over, what went wrong and why. Although one would think that ‘processing' the emotion would cause it to subside, usually the opposite happens, causing the negative emotion to persist. This is because what we focus on grows stronger. Expressing anger, for example, simply makes one angrier. However, that doesn't make suppression effective.

Thought suppression is a strategy of avoidance, e.g. watch TV and eat sugary food in an attempt to redirect attention elsewhere. It seems obvious that there are two strategies for dealing with a negative emotion – either express it or suppress it. However, neither work. It's the third option – cognitive reappraisal, that does the job (or think about happy times, get support from friends, etc…).

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Those with a performance-avoidance goal towards emotion regulation were most likely to use a rumination/suppression strategy, while those with a mastery goal towards emotion regulation were most likely to use a cognitive reappraisal strategy.

Study Variables

Participants – 62 college students.

 Independent Variables

Goal Orientation – Measured by adapting the Goal Orientation Inventory (e.g. “It seems like I’m constantly trying to prove that I’m ‘okay’ at dealing with my emotions.”)

Outcome Variables

Rumination and reflection (RSQ-S) – 10-item Likert scale questions asking how often certain things occur, like, “think about a recent situation, wishing it had gone better,” and “go someplace alone to think about my feelings.”

Thought Suppression (WBSI) – 10-item Likert scale questions asking how true or false certain things are, like, “there are things I try not to think about.”

Depressive Symptoms (BDI-II) –  21 multiple choice questions which attempt to gauge the presence of depression symptoms, like, “I feel sad/I do not feel sad,” and “my appetite is no worse than usual/I have no appetite at all anymore.”

Cognitive Reappraisal (ERQ) – 6-item reappraisal subscale of the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire, including questions like, “when I want to feel more positive emotion, I change the way I’m thinking about the situation.”

Beliefs about emotion regulation ability (NMR) – 30-item test which assess beliefs about how well one can alleviate negative feelings using various strategies, e.g. “I can feel better by thinking about more pleasant times.”

Rusk, N., Tamir, M., & Rothbaum, F. (2011). Performance and learning goals for emotion regulation. Motivation and Emotion35(4), 444-460.

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