The Use Of Emotions Can (Also) Be Learned, According To A Twin Study

Whether you suppress your emotions or look at them from a different angle to make them less painful depends to varying degrees on the genes, as a twin study now shows. 

Are you crawling out of your skin? Do tears shoot into your eyes when you are angry? Or do you quickly doubt yourself if you do not reach a goal? As different as the people are, so are their feelings and also their method of dealing with emotions. Perhaps one person only suppresses his tears while the other defuses the situation from the outset. How you usually deal with your feelings depends on many things: the way you have been educated, the experiences you have had in your life, and, last but not least, the genes that work in every single cell of the body. A group of researchers now wanted to know which factors have the greatest influence on how one gets one’s emotions under control.

A team led by Kateri McRae (1) from the University of Denver focused on two of the best-known strategies for emotion regulation. Cognitive re-evaluation is about re-assessing and defusing a situation that would normally lead to a strong emotion and reaction. In this way, for example, it can be prevented that every small setback leads to severe self-doubt. Suppression, on the other hand, is an attempt to prevent the emotion or reaction that would normally follow a particular feeling, such as tears of rage during a conversation with the boss. In contrast to suppression, however, cognitive reassessment is considered to be the more effective strategy for regulating emotions and developing resilience.

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A total of 743 pairs of twins completed a psychological questionnaire for the scientists; 448 of the pairs were identical and, thus, genetically almost identical. In addition, there were 295 pairs of fraternal twins whose genetic make-up is, by definition, about 50 percent identical. When comparing the twins, the scientists wanted to find out who reacts more to their emotions with suppression and who with a cognitive reassessment, and how big the influence and genes and environment are on all these parameters.

It seems that not all methods of emotion regulation are equally influenced by the genome. The results of the researchers suggest that the strategy of re-evaluation is less influenced by genes than, for example, suppression. On the other hand, environmental factors that the twin siblings do not share, such as individual experiences, appear to have a greater influence than suppression.

These results play into the hands of representatives of cognitive behavioral therapy, who work a lot with the method of re-evaluation. The smaller the role of genetics in this method, the greater the probability that patients will be able to learn and adopt it. The authors hope that researchers will now investigate which environmental factors would be suitable to increase the use of re-evaluation. According to the authors, these could be good starting points for improving emotional abilities.

This is part 26 of a series covering twin health provided by Paul Enck from the Tübingen University Hospital and science writer Nicole Simon. Further studies in twin research can be found at TwinHealth website. Translation was done with the assistance of DeepL translator.

Reference:

  1. McRae, K., Rhee, S. H., Gatt, J. M., Godinez, D., Williams, L. M., & Gross, J.J. Genetic and Environmental Influences on Emotion Regulation: A Twin Study of Cognitive Reappraisal and Expressive Suppression. Emotion. 2017 Aug;17(5):772-777.
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