Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, says that even though suppressing emotions in new or difficult situations is understandable and perhaps appropriate, carrying the practice too far creates a vicious cycle where trusting others.
Writing about the research work in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Srivastava revealed that the study looked at the social costs of emotional suppression among 278 college freshman during their first term at a major West Coast university.
The students — 58 percent female, 31 percent Asian, 60 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 7 percent black and 4 percent Native American — were contacted before they left home for college. Both before and after the transition, participants completed intensive assessments about their social and emotional experiences.
They also nominated acquaintances who knew them well — virtually all new friends at college — to be surveyed about how the participants had adjusted.
The study was carried out as part of a larger research project looking at how and why emotions matter for social adjustment, particularly in critical situations like the transition to college.
The researchers behind it looked at expressive suppression, a strategy some people use to regulate emotions where they “basically just try to not show any emotion on the outside,” Srivastava said.
They took the aid of weekly diaries to obtained data on each participant’s support from parents and friends, closeness with others, social satisfaction and academic satisfaction.
At the end of the term, the participants again addressed their levels of support from friends, closeness, and social and academic satisfaction. The researchers also gathered corroborating information from friends who could give first-hand accounts of how the participants were faring at college.
“Hiding your emotions is something that is very common but it’s something that often is not the right thing to do. We’re not saying never ever do this, but doing it may have negative effects in certain contexts, such as in transitioning into college. It may be hurting the formation of relationships,” Srivastava said.
According to him, data gathered from the participants and friends provided similar results.
“People who were hiding or masking their emotions were having more difficult times forming close, meaningful, supportive and satisfying relationships,” he said.
He points out that studies conducted in the past have shown that people keep emotions hidden during times when they feel alienated or disconnected, or when a situation leaves them feeling out of control.
For some individuals, those feelings may be more pronounced during major transitions, putting college freshmen at particular risk.
“In certain situations, it is natural and understandable, but if done all the time it may be counterproductive. We are trying to figure out where and why such emotional suppression is appropriate. It may be that people who do this may be having a more intense negative experience. People who do this are less likely to show positive emotions, like laugh at other people’s jokes, or smile, or even disclose their negative feelings. It’s a self-protection thing,” Srivastava said.
Other analyses did not find negative consequences for academic satisfaction, but Srivastava stressed the need for more studies into academic ramifications.
Also needing scrutiny is whether the impacts identified in this study carry longer-lasting consequences into later years of college and beyond, he said.