There is a popular conception that the scientific literature details how the genders regulate emotion differently. However, as much research as there is available on emotional regulation and dysregulation, there is not a wealth of information on how the genders individually process emotions.
Emotional reactivity are the processes that determine the nature of an individual’s base emotional response, while emotional regulation are the processes an individual uses to influence those emotions, as well as how emotions are experienced and expressed by the individual. In other words, emotional reactivity is how sensitive emotionally an individual is to stimuli. Emotional regulation is how, and how well, an individual can regulate their emotions. Emotional regulation can be both habitual or a more conscious and deliberate effort. It involves changes in the duration and the magnitude of certain aspects of emotions, and can be used to target either an individual’s own emotions, or the emotions of others (Gross, 2007).
Cognitive reappraisal can be used to down-regulate a negative emotional response. The process involves reframing the situation in less emotional terms ((Giuliani & Gross, in press). The process has been used in multiple studies as a way to separate emotional reactivity and emotional regulation. Cognitive reappraisal has been shown to be effective in reducing the negative emotions felt in self-reported experiences (Gross, 1998). Further, individuals who have indicated that they utilize cognitive reappraisal in daily situations have been found to experience less negative affect and fewer depressed symptoms.
A number of research studies have indicated that neurally, cognitive reappraisal can be an effective technique in emotional regulation, and in the down-regulation of negative affect (Ochsner & Gross, 2005). That is, certain key brain areas involved in emotional processing, included the amygdala and insula, have been shown to be down-regulated by cognitive reappraisal, while brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in executive functioning and cognitive control, are up-regulated during cognitive reappraisal (Eippert et al., 2007; Goldin, McRae, Ramel, & Gross, 2008). This is all the say that cognitive reappraisal can help modulate negative emotions by reducing the activation of emotional brain centers, while activating behavioral control brain centers.
In a study done by McRae, et al. (2008), both male and female participants were asked to utilize reappraisal (a cognitive emotion regulation strategy) to regulate their emotional responses to negative images. What is interesting is that both men and women showed a comparable decease in their negative emotion experience. This was the behavioral component of the study. Neurally, however, differences emerged between the genders.
Men, as compared to the women, showed less of an increase in their prefrontal areas associated with reappraisal strategies. Men also, as compared to women, showed a greater decrease in their amygdala, an area associated with emotional responses, while also experiencing a lesser engagement of the ventral striatal region, which is involved in reward processing.
This data indicates, then, that men expend less effort when utilizing cognitive regulation strategies. This may be due to a stronger or greater use of emotional regulation. Further, women tend to use more positive emotions when reappraising negative ones. What is interesting is that there seems to be inherent differences in how the genders regulate emotions. Clearly, both genders can experience emotions, including negative ones, as well as the other. And both genders may experience the effects of cognitive appraisal. However, the stark difference lies not in behavioral outputs, but neural ones. Females may be more “keyed up” emotionally than are males, and may be more sensitive to emotions, particularly negative ones, than are males. Further, males seem to be able to down- regulate negative emotions at a greater level than females, and may have their emotional processing systems less tied to reward.
This is not to say that one gender or the other is better or worse at emotional regulation. Rather, each one exhibits differences in their emotional proclivities and processing behaviors. Clearly, both genders are able to regulate and process their emotions.
Eippert, F., Viet, R., Weiskopf, N., Birbaumer, N., & Anders, S. (2007). Regulation of emotional responses elicited by threat-related stimuli. Human Brain Mapping, 28, 409–423
Giuliani, N. R., & Gross, J. J. (in press). Reappraisal. In D. Sander & K. R. Scherer (Eds.), Oxford companion to the affective sciences. New York: Oxford University Press
Goldin, P. R., McRae, K., Ramel, W., & Gross, J. J. (2008). The neural bases of emotion regulation: Reappraisal and suppression of negative emotion. Biological Psychiatry,63, 577–586.
Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271–299.
Gross, J. J. (Ed.). (2007). Handbook of emotion regulation.New York: Guilford.
McRae, K., Ochsner, K. N., Mauss, I. B., Gabrieli, J. J., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Gender differences in emotion regulation: An fMRI study of cognitive reappraisal. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 11(2), 143-162.
Rania Hanna graduated in 2012 with honors from Moravian College. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and is currently getting her Bachelors of Science in Computer Science. In addition to having a certification in technical writing, she has written one dozen novels and maintains a neuroscience and travel blog at http://neuravinci.com