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The interpersonal correlates of believing emotions are controllable

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Our beliefs about whether emotions are controllable influence how we approach our own emotions – but what about others’ emotions? Such beliefs should shape how we respond to others, but past literature suggests two competing hypotheses: if believing someone else’s emotions are controllable has similar beneficial outcomes as believing one’s own emotions are controllable, such beliefs may predict more supportive interpersonal responding. Alternatively, if believing someone else’s emotions are controllable instead activates evaluative social judgments, such beliefs may predict more unsupportive interpersonal responding. Across two studies Needs to read (Ns 309, 314), believing a depressed person’s emotions were more (vs. less) controllable predicted more unsupportive interpersonal responses: more negative responses (e.g., more avoidance) and less positive responses (e.g., less support). These beliefs were also associated with a greater likelihood of trying to regulate the person’s emotions across various emotion regulation tactics. Our results suggest that beliefs about emotion controllability have important implications for how we respond to others experiencing depression and distress.

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  1. Although different terms have been used in the literature to refer to these beliefs (incremental/entity theories, malleability beliefs, controllability beliefs), we have chosen to refer to “controllability” because this term most closely matches our validated measurement tool, which has been used often in prior work (De Castella et al., 2013; Kneeland et al., 2016a, b, c; Tamir et al., 2007), and centers explicitly on the extent to which people believe they (or others) can control or change emotions.

  2. Given the wide variability in socioeconomic status and age, we examined whether socioeconomic status (which we assessed with annual household income here, but the results are comparable when additionally considering education and subjective social class) and age had any consistent associations with people’s beliefs about emotion. We found weak associations with no consistent patterns of significance across studies and measures of beliefs. We also found that all the main results held when simultaneously controlling for the different measures of socioeconomic status and age.


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Correspondence to Angela M. Smith.

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Smith, A.M., Young, G. & Ford, B.Q. The interpersonal correlates of believing emotions are controllable. Motiv Emot 47, 323–332 (2023).

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