Lab based studies of emotional and wellbeing may be missing real world anxiety.
A study from Duke published in PLOS One found that the background level of anxiety a person may normally experience could change how they behave in a lab setting. This could have important implications for research into wellbeing and emotional health.
“At its heart, research is typically meant to capture a real-life scenario, so it is crucial to understand the gap between how people naturally manage their emotions versus how they regulate when following explicit instructions. We know from prior research that anxiety informs how people tend to manage their emotions, but we wanted to go further and see how anxiety informs the disconnect between natural versus instructed regulation,” Daisy Burr, author of the study and a graduate student in psychology and neuroscience at Duke told Theravive.
“I was motivated to understand the difference between how people manage their stress and emotions naturally versus when they are following guidance on how to do so, and how anxiety impacts this relationship. This is important because most research instructs people when and how to manage their emotions, which may not indicate how they regulate on their own, in the real world.”
Typically, research into emotional regulation focuses on two strategies: suppression and reappraisal.
“Suppression and reappraisal are two of the most commonly used and researched forms of emotion regulation. Suppression is characterized by trying to hide or mask what you are feeling, but doesn't actively engage the experience and therefore doesn't have long-term effects. Reappraisal is characterized by actively reframing the meaning of an emotion to change its emotional impact, which is more durable than suppression,” Burr explained.
“Based on this, we found that participants who are more anxious tend to naturally suppress more and participants who are less anxious tend to naturally reappraise more. However, participants' self-reported regulation tendency did not predict how they were naturally regulating, only their anxiety did. These findings reveal a puzzle in emotion regulation—either a) individuals are not reporting their true regulation style or b) how individuals regulate in the real world is not captured by laboratory experiments,” Burr said.
This disconnect between real world regulation and what is seen in the lab, Burr says, could be for a few reasons.
“Individuals may find it challenging to reflect on and characterize how they regulate when they are not actively regulating in that moment. Moreover, individuals may not be able to sum up their regulation style in a single measure—how they choose to regulate may greatly vary based on the situation and their personal goals. Regulation may be too contextual and idiosyncratic to varying goals and circumstances to distill into a single dispositional tendency, highlighting the importance of conducting research outside the laboratory.”
To test how anxiety might influence how people regulate their emotion, Burr and colleagues taught undergraduate students from Dartmouth how to either suppress or reappraise an emotional stimulus. Each time a participant was given a set of stimuli they were given clear instructions to either suppress or reappraise their response, or were told to look at it without instructions.
During this process, the researchers measured three physiological responses in the participants: skin conductance (a measure of stress like that in a polygraph test) and two sensors for activity in certain facial muscles.
The researchers found that in situations where the participants received no instruction, those who were naturally anxious were more likely to suppress, those who were less anxious were more likely to reappraise.
Anxiety, not self-reported regulation strategies, were more likely to predict how a participant was regulating their emotions.
“Anxiety may be a more stable trait that better predicts how individuals regulate. Anxiety may be the more fundamental disposition, which can be accurately captured by self-report, and informs how individuals regulate,” Burr said.
Burr says the findings of the study underscore how important it is to conduct some studies outside a laboratory setting.
“It is important to leave the lab and get into the wild to study people in their natural habitat. Research is meant to indicate future behavior, but that only holds true if people behave similarly inside and outside the lab,” Burr said.
“Also, there is an issue of self-selection with lab studies where some argue that only, for example, happy and intelligent people participate in lab experiments, which is not a representative population. Also, people who come into the lab for experiments tend to be white, educated, and higher socioeconomic status. To gain a more representative sample and study people in their natural environment, it is important to leave the lab by using methods such as ecological momentary assessment.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.