Psychological Skills: Changing your Emotions – An Intro to Cognitive Reappraisal

A longtime friend of mine (names withheld for privacy), who now works as a writer for a very famous game company, recently told me about how he got his first job there.
“So when I first applied, I submitted a bunch of material for them to evaluate. They knew that I had some outside experience and minor writing cred with another game company, but these guys have the attitude that they can get fans to write material for free, so what you offer for a salaried position has to be exceptional (an empty bluff really, considering the caliber of material they’d get for free from fanboys.)I sent them about a dozen pieces in all. I didn’t think they were brilliant, but I thought a couple had solid kernels, and maybe one could’ve landed a phone meeting.Instead, I got a letter back with basically itemized reasons why what I’d written was [garbage], in what felt like a very condescending manner from one of the designers.I was really pissed, because, even if what I’d submitted wasn’t what they wanted, no reason to be a [mean person] about saying so. I also happened to know that the guy who responded to my work wasn’t technically part of the narrative team but the web team.I nearly wrote back a letter saying ‘Fruit you, buddy, if you know so much about writing, where’s anything with your name on it?’ But I didn’t, and instead just thanked him for his time and the opportunity.”

“A week later, I got a letter from a senior designer asking me to come in. Apparently he liked one of my titles enough to go through it, and while he didn’t like the work itself, he must’ve seen something there, because he gave me a chance on a small project. A couple years later, and I have a couple major titles to my name and a job.If I’d have told that guy to go fruit himself, I don’t know what I’d be doing. My resume would be pretty empty if I’d done what I’d wanted to immediately.”

Here is an instance where a person, during an emotional state, exercised the ability to modulate behavior in what psychologists call “emotion regulation.” We use emotion regulation all the time: ever stop yourself from screaming after someone cuts you off on the 405, or thank the person who gave you something you didn’t want on Christmas? (I’m looking at you yellow sweater!)

Things probably wouldn’t have gone so well if my friend had told the person reviewing his submissions to “fruit himself.” He understandably felt emotional getting trashed on his first try, much like you or I would. But as his emotions unfolded, he recruited areas of his brain like the orbitofrontal cortex, a major structure in decision making, and prefrontal control systems such as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain which plays roles in goal appraisal and modulating the emotional activity of the amygdala, a subcortical brain area that processes anger and fear. Instead of becoming a screaming lunatic, the diatribe was subverted, civility restored, a career saved, and a relationship formed.All of this neural activity happens within milliseconds of an emotional situation unfolding, and the behaviors that ultimately come out of that process can dramatically impact one’s life.

The emotion regulation strategies we use are crucial for everyday social functioning and we often do them without even thinking about it. We’ve covered some of the most well researched emotion regulatory strategies in the past (in this post). It turns out, the better you are at using adaptive strategies, the better you are on average to make healthy everyday life decisions. So how, you may ask, might I practice these?

Among the most well researched and agreed upon adaptive regulatory strategies is an antecedent-focused strategy called cognitive reappraisal. Antecedent-focused means that you use the strategy before you have an emotional response. What cognitive reappraisal entails is 1.) attending to the emotional situation, which will elicit an automatic judgment of the situation (called an appraisal), and then 2.) a cognitive re-evaluation or re-judging of the situation in a more neutral or positive direction (called a re-appraisal). What happens when you take a split second to cast a better light on an otherwise dark situation is that you can actually upend your emotional experience entirely. What was once an idiotic, reckless driver, is now a guy just trying to get to work on time. What was once a focus on such a horribly dingy sweater is now a focus on what a nice gesture it was for Aunt Sally to fly all the way from Minnesota to bring you a sweater for Christmas. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that use of cognitive reappraisal can change one’s actual subjective emotional experience very quickly, and even show attenuated effects of emotion on the body. For example, anger typically causes one’s heart rate, respiration, and skin conductance levels to elevate, but upon reappraisal, these bodily responses don’t spike nearly as highly. Habitual use of reappraisal is also related to improved memory for emotional situations, and better social functioning in terms of healthy friendships and romantic relationships.

So the next time you feel like someone should go “fruit himself,” try doing a split second of work to cast a new light on him. You just might be saving yourself a lot of trouble.