Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Expressive suppression and emotion regulation

Expressive suppression and emotion regulation:
What is the role of expressive suppression in emotion regulation?


Emotions are an important part of human volition and interaction and are comprised of subjective feelings, cognitive appraisals, physiological responses, and action tendencies (Moyal et al., 2014). As part of our daily lives, we spend a great deal of time communicating our emotions and interpreting the emotions of others (Cherry, 2020). Understanding how to interpret and regulate emotions starts in early childhood and is crucial for learning how to adapt in social situations and build relationships (Denham, 2003). We typically practice emotion self-regulation every day, and expressive suppression plays a key role in inhibiting our outward display of emotion (Gross, 2002). As expressive suppression only alters the outward display of emotion, it does not change the individual’s experience, and may lead to an incongruence between the individual’s behaviour and experience (Butler et al., 2004).

People participate in expressive suppression despite the incongruence it can cause, largely due to social expectations (Denham, 2003). An individual’s social identity is formed by what ingroups they have membership within, and this encourages the individual to abide forms of normative influence to appease a group’s social norms (Conttrell et al., 2007; Vaughan & Hogg, 2018).

Another example of expressive suppression in emotion self-regulation is impression management. Impression management occurs when the individual self-regulates their outward display of emotion to influence their audience into perceiving them a certain way (Goffman, 2008). This is commonly used in performative situations where the individual’s public image is tied to achieving their goal, such as public speaking or job interviews (Harris, 2015).

Focus questions
  1. What influences expressive suppression?
  2. Why do individuals participate in expressive suppression?
  3. What are the costs and benefits of expressive suppression?

How emotions are formed and expressedEdit

Figure 1: an image illustrating Gross's Conceptual Framework of emotion generation and expression.

Gross’ (2013) conceptual framework simplifies the generation and expression of an emotional into four stages:

  1. Situation – an internal (i.e., imagined) or external (i.e., someone calls out your name) condition is generated.
  2. Attention – your attention is drawn to the situation.
  3. Appraisal – a cognitive assessment of the situation is conducted. If found relevant, an emotional response is formed.
  4. Response – the response formed in the appraisal is carried out.

An emotional response can be physiological (i.e., increased or decreased heart rate, or sweating) or behavioural (i.e., facial expressions, posture, hand gestures) (Purves et al., 2001). While emotional regulation can occur at any stage of the framework, strategies generally fall under two categories: antecedent and response focused (Weissman et al., 2019).

Response focused strategies occur in the final stage of the framework and include expressive suppression - the conscious inhabitation[spelling?] of outward emotional expression while the subject is emotionally aroused (Gross, 1993). According to Gross (2002), expressive suppression may fail to actually decrease the emotional response felt by the subject and can even increase the felt emotional intensity (Weissman et al., 2019).


Is expressive suppression an antecedent or a response focused emotional regulation strategy?

Response focused

The practice, purpose, and outcomes of expressive suppressionEdit

[Provide more detail]

Social Identity and group membershipEdit

Social identity is part of a person’s self-concept that is derived from the social group(s) of which they are a member (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). It differs from personal identity which derives its self-concept from personality traits and personal relationships (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018).

Groups are categorised into ingroups and outgroups. An ingroup is a group a person strongly identifies with, while an outgroup is a group a person does not identify with (Kurylo, 2012). An example of in/outgroups are sports fans. Fans tend to favour one team while finding rivalry with another team, bonding with other likeminded fans forming an ingroup, while rival team fans are considered as an outgroup.

Ingroup membership provides an individual with many important benefits: a sense of belonging, social support, access to resources, and potential romantic partners (Bernstein et al., 2010; McLeod, 2019). While social groups provide important benefits to members, they also stipulate what members should think and how they should act (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). People identify with multiple ingroups, many of which differ in their social norms, causing people to self-regulate how they think, act and express themselves dependant on the ingroup they are associating with at the time (Harris, 2015; Kurylo, 2012).

Normative InfluenceEdit

Normative influence is the practice where a person seeks acceptance by adapting to the positive expectations of a group or another individual (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). Humans are discriminately social creatures, and as such, seek social approval and acceptance through adapting to these normative influences (Conttrell et al., 2007; Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). These social norms influence what we eat, how we dress, and how we express ourselves (Harris, 2015). For normative influence to be effective one must believe they are under the surveillance of the group, leading to surface acting (Vaughan & Hogg, 2018).

Surface acting is where a person deliberately disguises, hides or exaggerates emotions depending on the situation and the group witnessing the emotional response (Harris, 2015). Nail (1986) found while many people will conform to the majority in a public setting, this conformity does not extend into private spaces or induce cognitive change. In relation to emotional regulation and emotional suppression, Harris (2015) breaks down surface acting into five strategies:

  • Wording – selecting words and phrases to indicate an emotion that is other than the one felt.
  • Tone of voice – adjusting the tone of voice used to suit the situation in accordance with normative influence.
  • Facial expressions – self regulation of facial expressions to match the wording and tone of voice used.
  • Bodily gestures – self regulation of bodily movements to match the wording, tone of voice, and facial gestures used.
  • Clothing – curating one’s outward appearance to conform to social norms.

Impression ManagementEdit

Goffman’s (2008) impression management is centred around individuals self-regulating their expressions to influence their audience into perceiving them in a particular way. People are more motivated to use impression management when they believe their public image is conducive to the attainment of their goals, and if there is a potential discrepancy between how they are perceived and how they want to be perceived (Leary, 2001). These impressions are influenced by the roles the individual occupies, the social norms of the group and situation, and the value the individual places on persons who perception is of concern (Leary, 2001)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. When faced with certain situations, individuals often look outwards – rather than to their own cognitive perceptions and pre-existing interpretations – and conform to normative influences, engaging in impression management and surface acting to positively shape the group’s perception of them (Harris, 2015).

An example of this phenomenon is public speakers. A public speaker will often greet an audience by declaring they are “glad to be there”. However, it is likely they have not actually closely examined and then displayed their internal feelings, but rather have accorded to the normative expectations of their role, performing enthusiastic displays that are anticipated in this particular social exchange (Harris, 2015).

Case study

Wayne & Liden (1991) performed a longitudinal study using 111 subordinate and supervisor pairs to examine impression management by subordinates and its effects on their workplace interpersonal relationships and performance evaluations. There are two main tactics in impression management:

  • Defensive and assertive - used in response to poor performance and include excuses, apologies, and learned helplessness (Liden & Mitchell, 1988).
  • Assertive - focus on creating an identity for that audience rather than defensive reaction to a situation (Tedeschi & Melburg, 1984).

Wayne & Liden (1991) used assertive tactics for this study, focusing on the use of self-presentation – i.e. verbal and non-verbal cues, and other enhancements (e.g. the use of flattery, favours and opinion conformity). Participants were asked to engage in either supervisor-focused or self-focused impression management. Wayne & Liden (1991) hypothesised:

  • Supervisor-focused impression management will:
    • Positively impact the subordinate’s likability.
    • Positively impact the supervisor’s perception of similarities with the subordinate.
  • Self-focused impression management will:
    • Negatively impact the subordinate’s likability.
    • Negatively impact the supervisor’s perception of similarities with the subordinate.
  • Supervisors[grammar?] liking and perception of similarity of a subordinate will positively impact the subordinate’s performance evaluation.

Participants were asked to periodically complete a survey throughout the first six months of a subordinate’s employment. At the end of six months, the data collected by Wayne & Liden (1991) supported the hypotheses made. Supervisor-focused impression management increased perceived similarity and likability of the subordinate which later positively impacted performance evaluations. Meanwhile, self-focused impression management had a negative impact on the similarity and likability of the subordinate.

Suppression of positive emotionsEdit

Experiencing and expressing positive emotions has been linked to psychological wellbeing, improved health, and increased productivity (Lucas & Diener, 2003; Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Schall et al., 2016). Expression of positive emotions communicate friendliness and provide a motivation to cultivate close relationships (Kraut & Johnston, 1979). People who express positive emotions are also perceived as more sociable, likable, and sincere when compared to those who are more reserved in their emotional expression (Reis et al., 1990; Reysen, 2005).

While those who outwardly express positive emotions are generally viewed favourably, the expression of positive emotions is not considered as socially appropriate in certain situations (Kalokerinos et al., 2017). When faced with a situation that is normatively considered negative, people who express positive emotions are viewed as less likable and less genuine than those who express a neutral expression (Krumhuber & Manstead, 2009). Hence, while some people smile or laugh in traumatic situations as a coping mechanism, to an outsider this emotional response may be perceived as inappropriate or immoral (Ferentz, 2015; Kalokerinos et al., 2017).

Likewise, the outward display of joy when performing significantly better than others (outperforming) is often perceived as inappropriate (Schall et al., 2016). Individuals who outwardly express positive emotions in outperforming situations fear upsetting the ingroup, being envied, or viewed as arrogant (Koch & Metcalfe, 2011; Rodriguez Mosquera et al., 2010). To avoid negative social consequences, individuals often suppress the display of positive emotions to levels that align with social norms, and as a result are often perceived more favourably than those who do not engage in expression suppression (Exline et al., 2004; Schall et al., 2016).

Case study

Schall et al. (2016) designed three scenarios to examine positive expressive suppression in outperforming situations. Scenarios 1 and 2 measured participants’ likelihood of suppressing the expression of positive emotions in outperforming vs non-outperforming scenarios. Scenario 3 focused on measured[grammar?] the acceptance and likability of those who suppressed vs expressed positive emotions in an outperforming vs non-outperforming scenario.

Study 1: In a classroom setting during school hours, 68 high school students were presented with previously completed graded tests. Students were asked to report their initial emotional response and whether – after considering their peers – they suppressed outward displays of emotions experienced.

Study 2: In a classroom setting outside of school hours, 53 high school students were asked to complete a 15min questionnaire. The questionnaires were identical, however the instructions provided differed. Outperforming students were instructed to think about a situation they had performed successfully when others had not, while the non-outperformers were instructed to think about a situation where they and the other competitors had achieved equal success. The students were asked to detail the recalled situations and whether they engaged in positive emotional suppression.

Study 3: In a computer lab, 195 high school students were organised into teams. Each participant was seated individually in front of a computer and shown a video with a description to assist in understanding the content. Participants were then provided with a manipulated scenario. Outperforming participants were advised the target student had received a very good grade while two other participants had received a very bad grade. The non-outperforming participants were advised the target student and additional two students mentioned all received very good grades. Participants were then shown one of two videos of the target student either expressing or suppressing positive emotions.

In studies 1 and 2 Schall et al. (2016) found outperforming individuals were inclined to suppress the expression of positive emotions when faced with non-outperformers than with fellow outperformers. In study 3 Schall et al. (2016) concluded individuals who outwardly suppressed their positive expressions when in an outperforming scenario were evaluated as more likable and accepted by fellow participants. However, when an individual outwardly expressed positive emotions in an outperforming scenario they experienced less acceptance from the group and were viewed as less likable.

Suppression of negative emotionsEdit

In adverse social situations individuals often suppress the outward expression of their negative feelings to reduce escalating the situation or to reduce the distress felt (Butler et al., 2003). However, the suppression of negative emotional expression has been associated with worsening mood, extended longevity of the mood, reduced positive emotions, and increased negative feelings regarding social interactions (Butler et al., 2003; John & Gross, 2004; Ruan et al., 2020). In general, suppression of negative emotional expression is taxing, ineffective and maladaptive (Gross, 2002).

While negative expressive suppression is maladaptive and fails to diminish the emotion felt, people are compelled to participate in social exchange theory where the cost vs benefit of expression suppressing is calculated (Gross, 2002; Lawler & Thye, 1999). Individuals often engage in low to moderate levels of suppression to assist in managing negative emotions as the benefits to interpersonal relationships outweighs the cost to the individual (Girme et al., 2021).

Maintaining positive workplaces and interpersonal relationships often demand individuals assess the cost of emotional labour – the management of emotions and engaging in surface acting – with the benefit of maintaining organisational quality or other’s personal comfort (Rehman, 2021). A common example of this is in hospitality work. During interactions with difficult customers, hospitality workers maintain a friendly demeanour despite how the interaction may make them feel (Rehman, 2021). This sustained level of emotional labour and surface acting can negatively impact the individual’s wellbeing, leading to emotional exhaustion, and work or relationship dissatisfaction (Rehman, 2021).

Case study

Butler et al. (2003) conducted two studies to evaluate the impact of negative emotional expression suppression in social situations. The interpersonal and physiological impacts were measured in each study through self-reporting, video recording of individuals, and blood pressure monitoring. Butler et al. (2003) hypothesised negative expression suppression would disrupt participants’ communication and increase stress.

Study 1: 72 unacquainted women were placed in pairs to discuss an uncomfortable topic. While fitted with blood pressure monitoring devices, participants were shown a 3 min nature documentary to gain a baseline blood pressure reading. To induce high negative emotions participants were shown a 16 min distressing documentary. One member in each pair was randomly assigned to either a) suppress their emotional expression, b) respond in their natural way, c) engage with cognitive reappraisal to reduce their emotional response. Specific Affect Coding System was used to analyse the video recordings and participants were asked to self-report their experience of the conversation and the rapport felt.

Study 2: 84 unacquainted women were placed in pairs to discuss an uncomfortable topic. Study 2 mimicked the conditions of study 1 with some alterations. The baseline documentary was extended to 6 mins to provide a more accurate blood pressure baseline, and the self-report questionnaire was extended to include likability and likelihood of forming a friendship with their fellow participant.

Butler et al. (2003) found negative expression suppression adversely impacts social interactions and individuals[grammar?] physiological health. Study 1 found expressive suppression distracted the regulators from the conversation and lowered their responsiveness to their partner. Study 2 found when the regulator suppressed their expressions it greatly diminished their likability and their partner’s willingness to form a friendship. Both participants self-reported a negative emotional experience and blood pressure monitoring showed heightened stress for both participants. Butler et al. (2003) concluded that, while negative expression suppression is argued to be critical for social harmony, these studies found negative expression suppression adversely impacts social interactions and individual physiological health.


The human emotional experience is a constant conscious and subconscious juggling act. Individuals are constantly evaluating what emotional expressions are allowable, when they are allowable, and to whom. In this process individuals are also assessing when emotions should be suppressed and whether the cost of expressive suppression is worth the benefit gained.

Group membership and the social identity formed from those memberships help people to navigate social expectations and social norms through normative influence (Conttrell et al., 2007; Kurylo, 2012; Vaughan & Hogg, 2018). To conform to normative influences people often utilise tactics such as surface acting and impression management to appease the group and maintain positive interpersonal relationships (Goffman, 2008; Harris, 2015). A study conducted by Wayne & Liden (1991) found assertive impression management by subordinates was successful in fostering positive relationships with supervisors and had a positive influence on their performance evaluations.

The expression of positive emotions has been linked to benefits such as improved health, perceived friendliness, and closer interpersonal relationship (Kraut & Johnston, 1979; Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Schall et al., 2016). However, some social situations dictate the expression of positive emotions should be dulled or completely suppressed (Krumhuber & Manstead, 2009). In negative or outperforming situations, it is socially expected that an individual will supress[spelling?] the outward display of positive emotions or risk being viewed less favourably, as seen in the study performed by Schall et al. (2016)

Similarly, there are situations where social norms dictate that negative emotional expression must be suppressed, particularly when interacting with others (Butler et al., 2003). This is often done to reduce escalating the situation or to reduce the emotional distress felt, but this suppression is exhausting and maladaptive (Butler et al., 2003; Gross, 2022). Butler et al. (2003) found the suppression of negative expressions adversely impacted the suppressor’s likability and cause heightened blood pressure. Despite the adverse impacts, social norms stipulate individuals should abide regardless, causing individuals to engage in social exchange theory to assess whether the cost of the emotional labour is worth the social benefit gained (Harris, 2015; Lawler & Thye, 1999).

See alsoEdit

Emotion self-regulation

Expressive suppression

In-group and out-group

Social identity theory

Normative social influence

Impression management

Personal identity

Social norms


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External linksEdit

Cherry, K. (2020, May, 11). ''The Universal Expression of Emotion.'' Very Well

Ferentz, L. (2015) Why Clients Smile When Talking About Trauma — Part 1

McLeod, S. (2019) Social Identity Theory