Why do break-ups sometimes send people reaching for ice cream? Why does retail shopping provide a perk during a bad day?
For Dr. Crystal Reeck, Assistant Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at the Fox School of Business, the answers reside in a person’s ability to regulate emotions in order to make adaptive decisions.
“What is it that other people can do to turn up or down others’ feelings to shape their behavior?” Reeck wondered during her latest collaborative research project, ‘The Social Regulation of Emotion: An Integrative, Cross-Disciplinary Model.’
“Whenever we’re stressed, tired, cranky, or scared, we tend to do things how we wouldn’t otherwise. That’s not groundbreaking. But what’s missing in that approach is not only how emotions shift people’s processes, but that we’re not slaves to our feelings. We have some control over how we react to things.”
For Reeck, whose research is to be published in a forthcoming edition of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the key to controlling that heartbroken appeal for ice cream or those stress-induced consumer purchases lies in a person’s dedication to a goal. If losing a few pounds or saving for retirement comprise a person’s long-term goals, he or she can learn to ignore immediate self-satisfaction from behaviors that may derail them.
Part of this process, Reeck said, is examining how a person views new information. Reeck’s research shows that people tend to synthesize information through the lens of a current goal. Therefore, when a development impedes that goal, he or she can become frustrated and become more likely to react negatively. This negative interaction directly impacts workplace environments, for example, when a disagreement between co-workers or criticism from senior leaders is internalized negatively.
“It requires a poker-face mode. It’s the stiff upper lip,” said Reeck, who also serves as Assistant Director of Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making. “A person may still be just as upset as they were to begin with, but they don’t know about it.”
This method of reacting to an emotional response often leads to increasingly negative experiences. The solution, Reeck said, is in changing one’s interpretation. If someone’s work is criticized, Reeck suggests that instead of an employee interpreting it as a failure, perhaps that person can see it as a chance to improve.
In the business world, managing the emotional responses of several people becomes critical to a functioning workflow. Investigating how to do so is a new edge in Reeck’s work, she said, and involves a synthesis of past research examining purely individual emotional regulation.
“People have studied this as a silo with different methods and theories,” Reeck said. “We’re trying to unpack the psychological processes that underpin that emotion regulation exchange between two people. In other words, how can one person change another’s emotional response?”