Reappraisal is the way to respond to setbacks such as political defeat and Covid-19, but there can still be negatives. By Marc Wilson.
Statistically, about half of you got the government you wanted on election day, but what about the rest?
Take a moment to put yourself in the position of the dejected Judith Collins voter. Feel that emotional shade of grey, even despair. If it helps, think back to such sadnesses of the past as the passing of pets and the loss of cherished toys. Or the anger that comes with the realisation of unfairness. Or the worry of knowing you've not prepared that presentation for tomorrow.
Now we've done the emotion induction part of the experiment, how do you deal with that feeling when it happens? In more technical terms, how do you regulate those emotions?
At this point in proceedings, a few adults will have tilted their elbows and tipped their imaginary wine glasses into their mouths.
Avoidance, via the bottle or other preferred poisons, is an example of what is usually considered to be a "maladaptive" emotion-regulation strategy. You wake up the next day, the problem hasn't gone away, and you have a hangover (or the consequence of whatever your preferred avoidance strategy might be). Other maladaptive strategies include ruminating, churning the problem over and over, or suppressing it by trying not to think about it. Again, it doesn't go away.
This is why active coping methods are typically seen as better and more adaptive – for instance, communicating your emotions to others or just asking for help. High up the list is reappraisal – thinking of the experience in ways that reframe it from entirely negative, such as the classic accentuation of the positive – a challenge to be surmounted, for example.
Back to elections. When you don't get the party you want, the self-help literature would suggest reappraisal is a good way to go – to not see the election of your unpreferred party as a negative but as a positive. Okay, perhaps not a good thing, but not bad. Does it work, though?
I don't believe anyone has asked this question here in New Zealand, but emotion researcher Brett Ford, at the University of Toronto, asked a lot of Americans about how they coped with the 2016 US election. The answer, for at least some folk, was a qualified yes; reappraisal did help Hillary Clinton voters feel better, but it showed a concerning side effect. Clinton voters who reappraised to downplay the emotional damage of the Trump victory felt better, but were less likely to subsequently engage in civic activities such as political activism or donating to political or social causes. If it's not as big a problem, then you don't necessarily have to do anything …
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Covid-19 has also caused an emotional rollercoaster, so what does Ford's research say about the unintended consequences of quite reasonable advice to focus on the sunny side? Ford and her colleagues have done the legwork, and again, reappraisal results in less worry about Covid-19 and better mental health. But people who reappraised were also less likely to engage in Covid-mitigation behaviours we've come to know and grudgingly accept.
Fortunately, Ford reports that a rosy reappraisal doesn't inevitably lead to fewer health-promoting behaviours, as long as you accentuate the social positives – lockdown meant more time with important others, for instance.
Meanwhile, Victoria University of Wellington graduate students Kealagh Robinson and Terise Broodryk have taken Ford's initial Trump-inspired research and tested it during our Level 4 and Level 3 lockdowns. They found that reappraisal didn't predict a reduction in Covid-mitigation behaviours.
Why the difference? Hard to know, but I wonder if it's something to do with our greater trust in our social and political institutions, or perhaps the power of social norms. If everyone, by and large, is seen to follow the rules, then individual feelings get, er, trumped.
We're at the end of the emotion experiment, so now I have to return you to normal. Get thee to a computer and google "happy puppies". I dare you to not feel better.