…Psychologists divide regulation strategies into two broad categories: pre-emptive, occurring before an emotion is fully felt; and responsive, coming afterward. The best known of the latter category, and one of the first learned, is simple suppression. First-graders will cover a smile with their hand when a classmate does something embarrassing; in time, many become far more adept, reflexively masking surprise, alarm, even rage with a poker face.
Suppression, while clearly valuable in some situations (no laughing at funerals, please), has social costs that are all too familiar to those who know its cold touch. In one 2003 Stanford study, researchers found that people instructed to wear a poker face while discussing a documentary about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made especially stressful conversation partners.
In another, published last year, psychologists followed 278 men and women as they entered college, giving questionnaires and conducting interviews. Those who scored highest on measures of emotion suppression had the hardest time making friends.
“An individual who responds to the college transition by becoming emotionally guarded in the first few days,” the authors wrote, will most likely miss opportunities for friendships.
Pre-emptive techniques can work in more subtle ways. One of these is simple diversion, reflexively focusing on the good and ignoring the bad — rereading the praise in an evaluation and ignoring or dismissing any criticism. A 2009 study led by Derek Isaacowitz of Brandeis University found that people over 55 were much more likely than those aged 25 and under to focus on positive images when in a bad mood — thereby buoying their spirits. The younger group was more likely to focus on negative images when feeling angry or down.