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Emotion Control: Suppressing feelings during upsetting events may impair your memory, researcher says


Your poker face may be costing you more than your money. It may be costing you your memory.

“People who suppress their facial expression during an emotional event may impair their memory of that event,” said Dr. Jane Richards, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. “While there is definitely a time and place to conceal emotion, concealing emotions during a stressful situation may come at a cognitive price.”

In everyday life, individuals actively regulate their emotion in a variety of ways. One common form of emotion regulation is expressive suppression, which entails inhibiting outward signs of emotion.

Jane Richards
Dr. Jane Richards

During a study, 57 volunteers were shown a disturbing film and then asked about their emotional state and how much effort they put into hiding their feelings. People who worked hardest on keeping their feelings in check had the worst recall of the film. 

Existing research and common sense would suggest that your ability to remember something in detail depends on how closely you pay attention. So in a follow-up study, expressive suppression was compared with self-distraction, defined as turning attention intentionally away from one’s surroundings. 

“I thought if you want to better understand the magnitude of the effect of concealing facial expressions, let’s compare it against the worst case scenario,” Richards said. “I actually went in to this thinking that intentionally trying to screen out an emotional event would lead to significantly more memory impairment.”

In the follow-up trial, 175 volunteers were shown a film that depicted a contentious conversation and were asked to either distract themselves from the film or to watch the film but try to control their facial expressions. Richards then measured their memory of what was said during that conversation.

Strikingly, keeping a stiff upper lip during an emotional event exacts a cognitive toll that is as great as intentionally not paying attention.  --Dr. Jane Richards“Strikingly, keeping a stiff upper lip during an emotional event exacts a cognitive toll that is as great as intentionally not paying attention,” Richards said. “This seems to suggest that there is something very demanding and cognitively taxing about simply trying to maintain a poker face.”

This research could have serious implications for juries who often must suppress emotions while having to view very upsetting photographs and/or hearing very upsetting testimonies. Richards is particularly curious if those who choose to conceal their emotions might possibly remember fewer details of the testimony.

“Whereas some people appear to remember emotional experiences completely and accurately, others are left with Cliff Notes,” she said. “What we don’t know is if we could undo the effects by telling people ‘okay this could potentially disrupt your memory so keep that in mind.’”

During a study using emotional conversations, some participants were asked to conceal any sign of emotion. Twenty minutes later they were asked to try to remember what was said during their conversation.

“The suppressers remember significantly less of what they said and what their partner said,” Richards said. “This is something you might expect if they were listening to a speech or watching a film, but you find this effect even in a very active conversational context that you encounter in everyday life.

Reflection of Dr. Richards in a large mirror

“One thing to remember in the context of relationships is that often times when dealing with our spouse or child we can get emotional, but we often try to keep those emotions from showing,” she added. “When this happens, there is a possibility that you won’t remember who said what. It could be that being aware of our memories possibly failing could help us avoid misunderstandings and conflict.”

Researchers have begun to emphasize that emotions are a response tendency that can be regulated. Thus, when some event happens, be it an argument or a car accident, experiencing or expressing emotions is not inevitable. Rather, people often think or do things that decrease the likelihood, magnitude or duration of what is felt inwardly or shown outwardly.

When college-aged respondents were interviewed about a recent time they tried to regulate their emotions, half of them described situations in which they focused on their face and tone of voice to suppress how they were feeling. Moreover, among undergraduates who maintained diaries of their emotional regulatory experiences over a two-week period, inhibiting emotion-expressive behavior was reported almost one quarter of the time.

“Factors such as immediate goals or situational constraints likely determined if and how a person will regulate emotion in any given situation,” Richards said. 

“Interestingly, hiding negative emotions does not decrease the extent to which these emotions are experienced. That is, expressive suppression helps people appear—but not feel—less emotional.

Whereas some people appear to remember emotional experiences completely and accurately, others are left with Cliff Notes.  --Dr. Jane Richards“We have some research that shows when people are trying to conceal their emotions they’re actually getting more physiologically aroused,” she added. “You tend to see an increase in sweat gland activity and blood pressure. So, not only does suppression take cognitive work, but it also seems to take something out of people physiologically.”

Fortunately, Richards points out that not all forms of emotion regulation have these consequences. Her prior work suggests that a strategy called cognitive reappraisal actually leaves memory intact. It’s a strategy that entails thinking about a situation in a way that makes it emotionally less toxic.

“It’s more relevant to everyday hassles rather than traumatic events,” Richards said. “It is hard to put a positive spin or minimize something such as the loss of a loved one. However, there are many situations where there are a lot of interpretations possible and just entertaining one of them that is less upsetting could be useful. It seems to be a strategy that people can train themselves to use over time.”

For example, if you’re walking down the hallway and you smile and say hello to someone who appears to be ignoring you, a lot of people’s initial reaction would be ‘what’s wrong’ or ‘that’s rude,’ leading them to be emotionally upset. Cognitive reappraisal would entail thinking ‘maybe that person was lost in thought and just didn’t see me.’ Any situation can be thought of in multiple ways, and by focusing on the positive alternatives individuals may be able to short circuit the negative consequences of emotional response.

“I think one lesson is that if you are in a situation where you are emotional and you want to get a grip, try to think about it in a way that makes it less upsetting,” Richards said. “That is the strategy that really can make you look and feel better.”

BY Michelle Bryant

PHOTOS of Dr. Richards: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 16 January 2006
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