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Controlling Our Emotions Could Undermine Social Change

Why do we refrain from protesting even when we oppose the political system?

Key points

  • Controlling our negative emotions can benefit our psychological health but may come with a price in terms of advancing social change.
  • New evidence from three countries shows that emotion regulation hampers people's willingness to participate in protests and rallies.
  • Engaging in protests, demonstrations, and rallies depends not only on what people feel but also on how they manage their feelings.

by Nevin Solak, Ph.D and Eran Halperin, Ph.D

Protests and demonstrations are pillars of democracy and an essential pathway for social change. Yet, given the extent of injustice, inequality, and oppression globally, it is surprising that protests are quite rare. For example, according to the World Values Survey, less than one in five citizens of North America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, have ever participated in a political demonstration.

Markus Spiske/Pexels
Source: Markus Spiske/Pexels

Why do many individuals unhappy with the sociopolitical arrangements stay home rather than joining like-minded peers in attempts to advance social change? One obvious answer is that protesting might entail some costs, certainly in countries where activists face repressive authorities. So, the question becomes a dilemma of balance: On one hand, people are not happy with their social and political reality and want to do something about it. On the other hand, people don't want to pay the price. So what do we do?

One way to decrease the burden of this dilemma is to regulate unpleasant negative emotions (like anger and guilt) that motivate us to participate in protests. According to James Gross (1998), a leading researcher of emotion regulation, the term refers to the attempts of individuals to influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they express them.

Using emotion regulation strategies can effectively eliminate negative emotions and improve how people feel (see: Webb et al., 2012). However, using these strategies might hinder the initial motivation to participate in protests (Ford & Feinberg, 2020). In sum, though emotion regulation might benefit psychological health, it may have some negative ramifications for promoting social change.

Ford et al. (2019) focused on a widely used emotion regulation strategy called cognitive reappraisal, in which people change how they appraise an upsetting situation. The researchers showed that individuals who use reappraisal feel less negative emotions as a response to a disturbing political event and, consequently, are less likely to engage in political action. Our new study, conducted by an international research team, shows that another widely used emotion regulation strategy — expressive suppression — can also hamper protest participation.

Expressive suppression is all about inhibiting overt expressions of emotions by keeping them deep inside (Gross, 1998). This emotion regulation strategy might be particularly detrimental to protest participation because protesting requires the willingness to express emotions publicly. Across four studies conducted in three different countries (the U.S., Turkey, and Israel), we demonstrate that people who are dissatisfied with social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements but regulate their emotions through expressive suppression are less likely to express negative emotions and, in turn, are less supportive of demonstrations and rallies (See also Jost, 2020).

In the U.S. study, participants watched a short anger-inducing video. The video was about how the government's collection of personal data is illegal and violates Americans' right to privacy. Yet, before watching the video, participants were randomly assigned to two groups. Participants in the first group were instructed to express their feelings freely and openly, while those in the second group were instructed to suppress their feelings. We found that people who suppressed their emotions were less angry and, in turn, less supportive of protests against government surveillance, even if they were dissatisfied with the socio-political arrangements.

We obtained similar evidence in the studies we conducted outside the U.S., focusing on people's daily practice of emotion regulation. In Turkey, we looked at the connection between emotion suppression and people's willingness to join protests on various subjects such as freedom of speech, the rights of ethnic minorities, and gender equality in the workplace. In the Israeli study, we explored the link between emotion suppression and support for demonstrations advocating for Palestinians' human and civil rights. In all contexts, we show that those who more frequently use expressive suppression are less likely to express negative emotions regarding the sociopolitical situation and, in turn, less likely to participate in protests even if they are dissatisfied with the status quo (compared to similarly disgruntled individuals who seldom use expressive suppression).

Overall, engaging in protests, demonstrations, and rallies depends not only on what people feel but also on how they manage their feelings. Though commonly regarded as beneficial for personal health, emotion regulation may undermine efforts to change unjust systems even among people who wish to challenge the status quo. So perhaps the next time you read about injustice or inequality, try not to suppress your anger or guilt too much. You might find yourself marching with thousands of other concerned citizens to adance the social changes you believe in.

Nevin Solak
Source: Nevin Solak

Nevin Solak is an assistant psychology professor at TED University. She received her Ph.D. in social psychology from the Middle East Technical University. She then was a postdoctoral fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Solak is interested in emotional processes in social justice, intergroup relations, collective action, and intergroup conflict.

References

Gross, J. J. (1998). Antecedent- and response-focused emotion regulation: Divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 224–237. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.224

Jost, J. T. (2020). A theory of system justification. Harvard University Press.

Ford, B. Q., & Feinberg, M. (2020). Coping with politics The benefits and costs of emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 34, 123–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2020.02.014

Ford, B. Q., Feinberg, M., Lam, P., Mauss, I. B., & John, O. P. (2019). Using reappraisal to regulate negative emotion after the 2016 US Presidential election: Does emotion regulation Trump political action? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000200.

Solak, N., Tamir, M., Sümer, N., Jost, J. T., & Halperin, E. (2021). Expressive suppression as an obstacle to social change: Linking system justification, emotion regulation, and collective action. Motivation and Emotion. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-021-09883-5

Webb, T. L., Miles, E., & Sheeran, P. (2012). Dealing with feeling: A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of strategies derived from the process model of emotion regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 775–808. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027600

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