The Social Regulation of Emotion and Updating Negative Contents of Working Memory

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The social regulation of emotion reduces negative affect and may also help remove negative contents from working memory. The present studies investigated whether the social regulation of emotion (in the form of handholding) altered the ability to update negative contents from working memory and whether a person’s level of desired emotional closeness moderated this effect. In each of 2 studies, an unselected sample of undergraduate students completed an emotional working memory task that measured the ability to remove irrelevant information from working memory and a self-report questionnaire measuring their level of desired emotional closeness. In Study 1 (N = 109), the task consisted only of negative images, and each participant performed half of the task while holding someone’s hand and the other half while not holding someone’s hand. Study 2 (N = 195) included a few changes (e.g., using both negative and neutral images, altering the control condition to consist of holding a stress ball, using a between-participants design, measuring comfort with handholding) to address a few potential alternative explanations. Overall, there appeared to be a better ability to update negative contents of working memory in the handholding condition of each study than the control condition among people with high desired emotional closeness but not among people with low desired emotional closeness. The present findings provide evidence that the social regulation of emotion can facilitate the removal of irrelevant negative contents of working memory. This process may be one way in which supportive relationships protect against psychological distress.

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