Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The social context of emotion perception and Attention strategies in self-regulation

1. How does the social context influence emotion perception?
2. How do attentional control processes influence the unfolding of affective responses?

Gratama Stichting
  1. Theories of social monitoring suggest that people are constantly vigilant to social cues of rejection and acceptance when scanning their environment (Pickett & Gardner, 2005; Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles, 2004). Specific social context may however vary in the extent to which attention to other people’s emotions is needed. In this research we examine which social contexts moderate emotion perception. We have for example observed that people are more responsive to other people’s facial expressions of emotions when they categorize people along psychological meaningful dimensions such as personality (i.e. extraversion or introversion) than when they determine whether people have a particular physical trait (i.e. blue or brown eye color). We have moreover found that people pay more attention to other people’s emotions when they feel their moral integrity is threatened than when they feel their moral integrity has been affirmed. In this line of research, we combine both (neuro)physiological methodologies, such as EEG, facial EMG and Eye tracking, as well as behavioral measures such as response times and self-reported emotions.
  2. Attention reflects the enhanced processing of some aspects of the environment while ignoring others (Johnston & Dark, 1986). As such, attention is used to select the information that is most relevant for an individual’s current goals from the constant stream of information that an individual is exposed to. In this line of research, we study how attentional control processes may influence self-regulation. We focus specifically on self-regulation consequences of the limitations of people’s attentional capacity. People can only process a limited amount of information at a time. As a result, attention is more restricted to task-relevant information when the task at hand becomes more demanding. We have shown that this has implications for affective processing: people experience less intense negative emotions and are less drawn by tasty but unhealthy foods and attractive people when their attentional capacity is compromised by a demanding task. Engaging in a challenging activity may thus facilitate self-regulation goals by blocking people’s mental capacity to process affective information. But we have also found detrimental effects of task load. When people for example consume sweet or salty foods when concurrently engaged in a difficult memory task, they perceive these tastes as less intense. To compensate for this, people then consume more, and higher concentrations of especially sweet and salty substances, something that we have called ‘hedonic compensation’.

Connection with other research

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