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Intuitive affect regulation

Dr. Simon Moss

Overview of the model

Some individuals can regulate their emotions--alleviate feelings of anxiety and dejection, for example--rapidly and effortlessly, seemingly with limited, if any, conscious deliberation. This capacity is called an action orientation (Kuhl, 1981& Kuhl & Beckmann, 1994). The model of intuitive affect regulation explains the evolution of this capacity.

According to the model of intuitive affect regulation, which emanated from Personality systems interaction theory, propounded by Kuhl (2000), this capacity depends on whether the implicit self is strongly associated with emotions. That is, recent studies indicate that individuals develop implicit, sometimes unconscious, attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge themselves.

Development of the implicit self

These attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge, called the implicit self, or sometimes referred to as extension memory (Kuhl, 2000), partly derive from associations (e.g., Dijksterhuis, 2004 & Greenwald, Banaji, Rudman, Farnham, Nosek, & Mellott, 2002). In particular, associations between facets of themselves and other events generate this implicit self. To illustrate, individuals might encounter a photo of themselves smiling. Over time, they will associate some facet of themselves, in this instance their face, with a positive cue, in this instance a smile (Dijksterhuis, 2004). Accordingly, these associations will confer a positive attitude towards themselves (Dijksterhuis, 2004).

According to the model of intuitive affect regulation, when this implicit self is activated, negative affective states dissipate (Kuhl, 2000& Koole & Coenen, 2007). In individuals who exhibit an action orientation, this implicit self is activated almost immediately after individuals experience these emotions, and hence feelings such as anxiety and dejection dissipate rapidly (Kuhl, 2000& Koole & Coenen, 2007). In other individuals, the implicit self is activated only after an extensive delay (Koole & Coenen, 2007). Negative affective states, therefore, persist--called a state orientation (Kuhl, 1981& Kuhl & Beckmann, 1994).

Connection between the implicit self and emotional regulation

According to Kuhl (2000) as well as Koole and Coenen (2007), many life experiences determine whether or not the implicit self is activated immediately after an aversive event and thus whether an action or state orientation will prevail. In particular, an action orientation will prevail if strong associations are formed between the implicit self and these affective states.

To illustrate, as Kuhl (2000) emphasizes, some individuals are granted autonomy in aversive contexts. As a consequence, they often associate a facet of themselves--in particular, their own choices and values--with these affective states. As a consequence, when these emotions transpire, the implicit self will be activated. These adverse emotions, therefore, will dissipate rapidly, manifesting an action orientation. Individuals will be able to maintain positive affect even when threats or demands are imminent.

Conceivably, the implicit self is more likely to regulate emotions effectively in individuals who have developed positive attitudes towards themselves (see Koole & Coenen, 2007). Nevertheless, according to the concept of implicit egotism (Pelham, Mirrenberg, & Jones, 2002), on average, individuals seem to regard themselves positively rather than negatively. For example, they tend to prefer letters that correspond to their initials (Pelham, Mirrenberg, & Jones, 2002). Hence, because their implicit self tends to be positive, the activation of this system will usually moderate negative affective states.

Alternatively, the self might be associated with positive emotions, which could thus underpin this regulation of emotions. Specifically, individuals define the self as occasions in which they were granted autonomy or choice. Negative emotions correspond to occasions in which choice was restricted, as defined by broaden and build as well as self determination. Positive emotions, thus, correspond to occasions in which choice was not restricted. Hence, the self is associated with positive emotions--and thus, when activated, might alleviate negative emotions.

Properties of the implicit self that facilitate emotional regulation

In short, when the implicit self, or extension memory, is activated, negative affective states, such as anxiety and agitations, dissipate rapidly, effortlessly, and intuitively (Kuhl, 2000). Several properitse of the implicit self facilitate affect regulation.

First, the implicit self is underpinned by parallel distributed processing (cf., Rumelhart, McClelland, & the PDP Research Group, 1986). That is, when this system is activated, an extensive array of memories, needs, motives, goals, values, and attitudes that relate to the self are activated (Kuhl, 2000). The extent to which these representations are activated depends on their relevance to the immediate context. Hence, this system circumvents the inefficiencies of conscious operations in which representations are usually considered in sequence not simultaneously. Only the implicit system, therefore, can respond to the rapid and dynamic changes in emotion that characterize human affect (Berridge & Winkielman, 2003).

Second, the implicit self, in essence, represents all the goals, motives, needs, and inclinations of individuals in specific contexts. Accordingly, the implicit self can ensure the regulation of affective states is concordant with the broader values and needs of individuals.

Empirical evidence

A variety of studies suggest the implicit self, or extension memory, might also enhance the capacity to regulate emotions. For example, measures or manipulations that indicate the implicit self is active correlate with a diminution of negative affect (Conner & Barrett, 2005& Dijksterhuis, 2004).

Second, individuals who received autonomy from parents when young are more likely to demonstrate an action orientation (Koole, Kuhl, Jostmann, & Finkenauer, 2006)- a capacity to regulate emotions efficiently (Kuhl, 1981 & Kuhl & Beckmann, 1994). This finding supports the proposition that autonomy facilitates the formation of associations between the implicit self and emotional regulation.

Furthermore, Koole and Jostmann (2004) discovered that affect regulation does elicit activation of the self, but only in participants who demonstrate an action orientation. In this study, affect regulation was gauged by fast recognition of happy faces among angry crowds. Activation of self was gauged by rapid recognition of whether or not items relate to the self.

Implicit self orients individuals to positive cues

In addition, in a study conducted by Koole and Coenen (2007), individuals needed to ascertain whether a series of words, such as hate or love, were positive or negative. A positive or negative prime also preceded these targets. On some trials, an allusion to the self, such as the word "I", was presented subliminally. In participants who demonstrated an action orientation, these allusions to the self slowed recognition of negative targets, relative to positive targets, especially when the primes were negative. In other words, when these participants could access their implicit self, they could divert their attention from the negative prime- and hence could not recognize the negative terms as readily.

This pattern of findings was not observed in participants who feel they cannot regulate their emotions effortlessly and rapidly (Koole & Coenen, 2007), called a state orientation. Indeed, access to the implicit self increased the effects of negative primes, facilitating responses to the negative targets only.

Implicit self overcomes threat

In one study, conducted by Quirin, Bode, and Kuhl (2011), participants were exposed to a threatening movie: a scene in "Silence of the Lambs". Next, some participants completed a task that was intended to activate the self. In particular, on each trial, the word "my" and a noun, such as "my apartment", appeared on the screen for 4 s. Next, an asterisk was flashed on the left or right side. Participants pressed one of two buttons, as rapidly as possible, depending on which side the asterisk appeared. Other participants completed the same task, except the word "my" wss replaced with the word "the", reducing activation of the self.

In addition, participants completed an implicit measure of affect, called the IPANAT (see implicit measures of affect), to assess their affect at three times: before the movie, after the movie, and then after the asterisk task. Specifically, a series of nonsense words was presented. Participants indicated the extent to which they felt these words evoke a series of emotions.

Immediately after the threatening movie, implicit positive emotions diminished. However, after the reaction time task, implicit positive emotions increased significantly, but only if participants had been exposed to the word "my" and hence the self had been activated. Presumably, activation of the self facilitates emotional regulation. That is, the self is biased towards times in which individuals were granted choice and thus primarily entails positive representations. Accordingly, if the self is activated, negative images will also activate the corresponding positive representations, improving affect.


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Conner, T. & Barrett, L. F. (2005). Implicit self-attitudes predict spontaneous affect in daily life. Emotion, 5, 476-488.

Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). I like myself but I don't know why: Enhancing implicit self-esteem by subliminal evaluative conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 345-355.

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Pelham, B. W., Mirrenberg, M. C., & Jones, J. T. (2002). Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: Implicit egotism and major life decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 469-487.

Quirin, M., Bode, R. C., & Kuhl, J. (2011). Recovering from negative events by boosting implicit positive affect. Cognition & Emotion, 25, 559-570.

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Last Update: 5/15/2016