When context matters: Negative emotions predict psychological health and adjustment

Abstract

Functional theories of emotion argue for the adaptive function of negative emotions in response to specific contextual or environmental demands. However, data supporting these theories in community samples is limited and much research has suggested the opposite: negative emotions predict poor adjustment. To begin to address this discrepancy, we tested the functional association between negative emotion and psychological health and adjustment across three diverse samples: adults in intimate-partnerships, patients with chronic illness, and first-year college students. In each study we employed lab-based methods to elicit and index emotion as a multi-dimensional response system and considered contextual factors and the theorized or demonstrated function of negative emotions in that context and in relation to specific outcomes. Data analysis revealed that contextually sensitive negative emotion was adaptive, and associated with better relationship adjustment and related behaviors (Study 1), higher treatment adherence (Study 2), and adaptive responses to peer rejection (Study 3). Across samples, circumstances, and outcomes, negative emotions were positively associated with psychological health and adjustment.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This interview was added to the study after data collection had already commenced, as such it was not available to the first 27 participants. Analysis of the individuals who had and had not participated in the interview revealed no demographic, relationship or emotion-related differences.

  2. 2.

    Increasing evidence suggests that facial coding by relatively naïve coders may be as valid as highly trained coders (e.g., Dondi et al. 2007; Waldinger et al. 2004).

  3. 3.

    We tested all assumptions of regression in each analysis in all three studies, including the assumption of normality in the dependent variable. Although behavioral indices including relationship behaviors indexed here and treatment adherence indexed in Study 2 can be skewed, the distributions in our samples were within normal parameters (Tibachnik and Fidell 2006).

  4. 4.

    Although we are not aware of data suggesting that over-chelation in patients with TDT is problematic or beneficial, we did not want to assume that chelating more than prescribed was is indicative of “better” adherence. However, to be sure that we we did not artificially influence results by truncating scores to 100 %, we conducted analyses again using un-truncated scores and the results were unchanged.

  5. 5.

    Given the correlations among emotion variables we did rerun these analyses in various combinations (e.g., without all emotions included; without baseline emotion) to test the possibility that the effects reported were dependent on the presence of the covariates. Across analyses the nature of the relationships between IVs and distress were relatively consistent and there were not meaningful differences when covariates were or were not included.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to express their gratitude to the numerous research assistants and staff involved in the data collection described here. In addition, we would like to thank Dr. T.L.Gilman for her comments on the final versions of the manuscript. Finally, this work was funded in part by a Farris Family Innovation Award, Farris Family Foundation to Dr. Coifman.

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All procedures performed in research involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the relevant institutional review boards governing research involving human subjects and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and it later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Moreover, written informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in this research.

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Coifman, K.G., Flynn, J.J. & Pinto, L.A. When context matters: Negative emotions predict psychological health and adjustment. Motiv Emot 40, 602–624 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9553-y

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Keywords

  • Negative emotion
  • Adjustment
  • Stress
  • Context
  • Health