Emotions rule our lives. Whether we want it or not, emotions color our thoughts and guide all of our actions. But since we have a prefrontal cortex and the power of will, we have the ability to regulate our emotions and thus to rule ourselves.
Whenever we do so, we have at least one psychological motive: a will, an objective, a specific outcome we desire, a reason why. But are we always aware of our motives? Are you always aware of when, how, and why you are exercising emotional self-control?
People use different strategies to regulate their emotions: some accept them, others suppress; some adjust their thinking, others ruminate; some try to change the situation, others distract themselves; some focus on their breath, others write into a diary; some pursue social contact, others withdraw; some go work out, others go open the fridge. That is the how of emotion regulation. But why?
Why emotional self-control? What motivates people to regulate their emotions? The following eight reasons are not some random ideas I pulled out of my creative ass, but key motives based on scientific taxonomy (see Tamir, 2016).
The first reason is boringly obvious:
People want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Hedonism motivates us to up-regulate positive and down-regulate negative emotions. For example, we savor the joy we have being with our loved one to maximize our pleasure, and we distract ourselves from our longing when he or she is gone to minimize the pain.
Regulating emotions with the intention of feeling better is trivial, but it is not the only reason for emotional self-control. In fact, even the opposite can be a valid motive:
Just like masochists derive pleasure from physical pain, some people derive pleasure from emotional pain; so they regulate their emotions to augment suffering. Think about women who constantly need drama in their relationships and choose staggering sorrow over mild bliss (evolutionarily, this probably ensures the mate’s emotional investment). But also those who watch horror movies in the hope of being scared or who read a tragedy in the hope of experiencing sadness: their motive seems to be emotional pain (see also #8 below, though).
Furthermore, an anxiety disorder can motivate people to increase their suffering by up-regulating a negative emotion like worry if they believe that it prevents them from experiencing frightening situations (Newman & Llera, 2011).
In general, people tend to have irrational desires when it comes to pain. In one experiment by Kahneman et al. (1993), subjects preferred 60 seconds of cold-water pain plus 30 seconds of slightly less cold-water pain to solely 60 seconds of cold-water pain. If only the end state pain was less intense, they would rather have more pain overall. This makes no rational sense, but it influences how people make decisions and regulate their emotions. Sometimes, we self-regulate toward displeasure.
Still, contra-hedonic regulation is rare and almost exclusively used to down-regulate positive emotions (English et al., 2017), say, to lower amusement at a funeral or to lower pride to not appear arrogant; but these are already social motives (see #6-7 below).
The right emotions at the right time can epically enhance human performance. Thus, high performers regulate their emotions not to feel better in the present, but to perform better in the present and feel better in the future after they have succeeded.
Convince students that positive emotions impair concentration just as much as negative ones, and they will down-regulate them all when they study, even though a more hedonistic regulation strategy would make them feel better.
Imagine you are in a bad or neutral mood and someone asks you to complete an analytic task. Would you listen to happy music to improve your mood? What if the task demands creativity instead of logic? People tend to adjust their emotion regulation to a given task depending on whether it requires analytical or creative thinking. They believe that sadness or indifference promotes analytical thinking while happiness promotes creativity and regulate their emotions accordingly to maximize performance, not pleasure.
Now imagine you want to win at a game that requires aggression. Would you deliberately increase your anger to become more aggressive and perform better? Most people do, even if they see anger as a negative emotion that makes them feel bad. Similarly, in a game that requires threat avoidance, people readily up-regulate their fear. The desire to win seems to motivate people’s emotional self-regulation regardless of whether they will feel more pleasant or unpleasant as a result. Sometimes, winning trumps feeling good.
Athletes in particular manipulate their anger and anxiety before competitions based on what they think will help them perform better. For example, 15% of the runners interviewed by Lane et al. (2011) believed that anger and anxiety, which they actively tried to increase, would give them an edge; the others did their best to alleviate these emotions, which they found debilitating.
Desired self-images can motivate emotion regulation as well. Some examples:
- Men who want to be manly will tone up their anger if they think that anger signals masculinity.
- Women who want to be safe will try to feel happier if they think that happiness signals safety.
- People who want to be successful will up-regulate their pride if they think that pride signals success.
- People who want to be just will boost their outrage if they think that outrage signals justice.
However, people also regulate their emotions to make them fit their current self-image. People with low self-esteem, for example, often avoid activities that they think will make them feel better because they believe they are unworthy of happiness, telling themselves that they “don’t deserve to feel good.” Happiness does not fit their authentic self-image.
Similarly, people prefer emotions that feel familiar: generally happy people self-regulate toward happiness, neurotic people self-regulate toward fear, embittered people self-regulate toward anger, and depressed people self-regulate toward sadness. While the latter emotions may feel bad, they at least provide the comfort of familiarity.
Familiarity (being used to feeling this way) and authenticity (being true to one’s self-image) can cement positive as well as negative emotional tendencies. Hence, if you are in a bad place emotionally, trying to “be yourself” will likely worsen your condition. A better advice would be to figure out what emotions confirm your negative self-image and then use your emotion regulation skills to oppose them, to direct them toward your desired self-image.
The emotion regulation preferences of Western and Eastern cultures corroborate their views of the world. People in the West tend to see the world as individual elements changing in a linear fashion, whereas people in the East tend to see blended elements changing in a cyclical fashion.
Accordingly, Asians are more motivated to balance their interdependent emotions, even dampening positive ones, than Caucasians, who view their emotions as more distinct and independent. Desiring harmony (living to the fullest by being mindful of temperate emotional states) versus emotional roller-coaster rides (living life to the fullest by going through extreme ups and downs) are two different motives for regulating emotions, rooted in two different cultural worldviews.
6. Social Influence
Happy people are attractive, and attractiveness increases social influence. Be honest: Do you only want to be happy to feel good? Or could it be that you desire power, social influence, or some specific social benefit (maybe sex?) and you have learned that happiness helps you to get what you truly want? After all, humans are attracted to happy people, which, in turn, makes happiness boosting an attractive endeavor. The psychological motive, then, is social rather than hedonistic.
Next, consider that being angry can intimidate others and make them submissive. This motivates people to experience intense anger if they want to be dominant, even though anger-fueled dominance may indicate a lack of confidence and communication skills.
In a similar way, people may be motivated to increase sadness to recruit help from others. Some women in particular seem to have mastered the art of instrumental crying—am I right, guys (waiting for male approval…)?
Anger, again, is thought to improve social status, such that certain people may evaluate an angry hothead quite positively, say, as an assertive or sexy alpha male. This, in turn, can be used for impression management: regulating one’s anger to manipulate one’s image.
Moreover, emotions color human communication. An exciting tale told in a languid voice is not exciting. A speech of outrage spoken without the slightest touch of anger is powerless, uncompelling, and likely confusing. An oath of love vowed without passion will turn balls blue. And a story of grief is best told in a mourning state. Thus, to communicate effectively, we will be motivated to regulate our emotions to match and accentuate the emotional content of what we have to say. Therefore, if you have bad news, up-regulate bad feelings; but up-regulate good feelings if your news are good—to maximize verbal impact.
Finally, people who want to connect with another person often mimic that person’s emotional state by regulating their own in order to appear more empathic and understanding. This, too, is impression management, image manipulation.
7. Social Identity
Another social motive is the strengthening of love bonds. Someone who loves his family and country may want to strengthen these in-group bonds by fueling his hatred for others. Although he may dislike the negative feeling of hate, he keeps stoking it. His ultimate motive is social rather than hedonistic.
Further, congruent emotions among members of a group promote group cohesion, political action, and collective goal achievement. Emotional homogeneity gives mobs immense power. So, if you want to improve emotional congruence within a group or if you want to signal that you belong to the group, you have a good reason to regulate your emotions to align them with whatever the group seems to be feeling.
For example, a happily content man may not fit in with a raging mob, but if he wants to belong, to be one of them, he can choose to spur his rage and diminish his happiness. Similarly, an American patriot might want to feel sad on Memorial Day—out of respect—as might a Christian on All Souls’ Day, especially if he has lost someone dear to him.
On a larger scale, people’s reasons to control their emotions depend on cultural values. In individualistic cultures, people self-regulate more toward excitement and pride, which promote personal improvement, whereas in collectivistic cultures, they self-regulate more toward calmness and guilt, which promote social harmony (confer #5 above).
These are only a few of the many ways in which our sense of social identity motivates emotion regulation, independent of how good the emotion actually feels.
I have already mentioned this partly above (see #2), but let us look at it now from another angle: Why do we watch horror movies that make us feel afraid and tragic movies that make us feel sad? Why do we listen to aggressive music that fills us with hate? Why do we watch the news that triggers our anger? In general, why do we consume entertainment that causes unpleasant emotions? Are we emotional masochists?
First, many people prefer negative emotions to emotionlessness. Even if they feel bad, at least they feel something. They would go for almost anything as long as it distracts them from their drab, monotonous lives. However, entertainment that elicits negative or mixed emotions provides more than mere distraction: it also broadens our emotional experiences; experiences from which we can learn, experiences we find meaningful.
We all need a sense of meaning in our lives, and regulating our emotions to broaden our spectrum of affective experience accomplishes precisely that: it generates meaning; and if not meaning, it at least satisfies our innate sense of curiosity. For this is one of the curious peculiarities of our human nature: that we willingly forgo pleasure and positive emotions—just to see what depths life has to offer, and how else our valiant hearts can bend.
Tamir M (2016). Why Do People Regulate Their Emotions? A Taxonomy of Motives in Emotion Regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Review 20(3), pp. 199-222, doi: 10.1177/1088868315586325.