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Better actionless than action-taking

Unconscious acceptance works better in regulating frustrating emotion

Science China Press

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IMAGE: This is an example of unconscious acceptance priming (left) and the mood change after frustration in each condition (right). view more

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A recent study from Southwest University of China has found that unconscious priming of acceptance attitude works well in reducing frustrating emotion, at little cost of cognitive efforts but producing best mood stability during frustration. This provides an important perspective for the coping of daily frustration, the education of adaptive coping and the development of healthy personality.

This study has been published in SCIENCE CHINA: Life Sciences (IN CHINESE), which is entitled " Emotion regulation effects of unconscious acceptance during a frustrating situation: behavioral and physiological correlates". The corresponding author of this work is Dr. Jiajin Yuan, the director of Affective Cognition and Regulation Laboratory (ACRLAB) and an associate professor of psychology in Southwest University. The research team includes graduate students Nanxiang Ding, Yingying Liu and Dr. Jiemin Yang from the same university.

Life is full of aborted goals, from dating, university admission, to job hunting and so on. Where there is goal pursuit, there are setback and frustration. Thus, the effective coping of frustration is of vital importance to human life, both social functioning and health. The acceptance has proven useful in mitigating the long-term consequence of negative events. This strategy encourages people to adopt an accepting, observing, non-judgmental attitude to frustrating emotions, rather than trying to avoid or modify them, however, the conscious acceptance of negative emotions may intensify immediate unpleasant feelings, despite benefits for long-term health. Also, exercising acceptance entails dropping our natural, instinctual responses to frustration, but instead learning to accept whatever we experience. Obviously, this process is costly and effortful.

This study used a difficult arithmetic task paired with feedback to induce frustrating emotion. The results confirmed that conscious, effortful acceptance of frustrating emotion resulted in a short-term reduction of positive affects, a typical symptom of state depression; though this strategy decreased frustration-related physiological costs in heartbeats. However, these side effects were eliminated, when this intervention was realized by unconsciously priming subjects with the acceptance attitude. To induce unconscious acceptance, subjects were asked to select four out of five words, one of which is semantically related to "acceptance", to make up a proper sentence. After this, performing the frustrating task was associated with significantly reduced physiological costs but little reduction of positive affects (Fig.1); though no explicit action was taken.

These findings suggest that unconscious formation of accepting attitude may work better than conscious acceptance to reduce frustrating emotional responses. " A possible explanation is that unconsciously formed accepting attitude serves as a stable background, reducing frustration from the very beginning it happens; whereas instructed conscious acceptance works only if unpleasant emotion is saliently experienced. This explanation needs to be directly examined in a future study, of course." Said Yuan.

"These results may have implication for early education of frustration coping. Teaching kids to accept frustration when emotional consequences arise, is not as good as parents setting good examples of accepting whatever frustration in everyday life. This is unconscious priming" Said Dr. Yang, an co-author of this study.

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Source: Yuan J J, Ding N X, Liu Y Y, & Yang J M. Emotion regulation effects of unconscious acceptance during a frustrating situation: behavioral and physiological correlates. Scientia Sinica Vitae, 2015, 45: 84-95

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