Here’s comforting news: When crappy things happen to us, it appears there’s a something deep inside us—so deep it’s beneath our consciousness—that says, “Cheer up, little soldier. Things aren’t that bad.”
An article in the journal Emotion details nine experiments conducted by a team of six researchers, including a couple who have caught my attention before: Roy Baumeister, who taught me how to put down a torch, and Jean Twenge, who writes about narcissism.
The article is titled “Automatic Emotion Regulation After Social Exclusion: Tuning to Positivity.”
The researchers used social exclusion to test their theories because they know that social exclusion has a lot of power to make us feel bad. They write:
…The need to belong is the most basic human need…social exclusion is such a potent threat that it activates mechanisms designed for the detection and regulation of physical pain …
Prolonged social exclusion makes people feel really, really bad. Nobody doubts that. But research on “acute exclusion experiences” (i..e. not being invited to go to lunch with the gang one day) is less definitive. It seems acute exclusion experiences are more likely to be met with a shrug, or “emotional detachment.”
These researchers propose and find evidence that when we experience acute exclusion, emotions beneath our consciousness accentuate the positive, presumably to help us bear up.
The researchers did some very clever experiments to find that little hint of below-the-radar happiness. For example, after an acute exclusionary experience in the lab, participants were presented with a series of fill-in-the-blank words and asked to complete the words. When presented with ANG_ _ and asked to finish the word, did the person write ANGER or ANGEL?
Turns out that the people who had experienced exclusion in the lab were more likely to see the angel than the anger. The researchers tried this out all sorts of ways and got consistent results. Even when participants were pretty sure they’d feel rotten if excluded, they still were unconsciously attuned to positive information.
Participants who were asked to predict how they would respond to acute exclusion showed no sign of anticipating the response that actually accompanied the experience. Participants predicted an explicit negative reaction that was not found, and they failed to predict the implicit positive reaction that was found.
Pretty neat. Sounds like the seeds of resilience. I think of it as happy antibodies coming in and attacking bad feelings, the way our biological antibodies kick in to protect us from disease. We not aware of them in action but they’re there. They’ve got our back.
And, the researchers point out, while “unconscious emotional regulation processes” have gotten a bad rap and been considered “uniformly indicative of psychopathology” (for example, repressing important emotions), this research suggests that there’s a good side to our unconscious emotions, too.
Not surprisingly, the researchers also found that people who measure high on depression or low on self-esteem are low on that automatic “cheer up” response. Future research, they suggest, could look at whether this process needs always be unconscious or whether with practice it can be a way to consciously cope with social rejection. (So far, exclusion is the only negative experience they’ve tried this with; another future direction they suggest is trying it out on other lousy experience.)
I wonder, too, if this suggest that protecting children from any hurt or disappointment actually interferes with their developing healthy emotional antibodies, just as overprotecting ourselves from germs may make us more, not less, vulnerable to disease.
Lots of interesting research ahead.
But while they’re messing with all this in the lab, we can do the real-world research. Next time something bad happens to you, look around. See anything that makes you happy? If so, maybe that’s because your emotional antibodies are doing their job.
Photo by Nina Matthews Photography via Flickr (Creative Commons).