Emotion Regulation: Is it More Taxing for Adolescents than for Adults?
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AbstractThe capacity to regulate emotions appears to improve with age across adolescence; but adolescence is also a time of heightened emotional intensity (Fjell et al. 2012; Larson & Ham, 1993; Shulman et al., 2016; Steinberg 2008). The coexistence of immature emotion regulation and heightened emotional intensity during adolescents complicates attempts to index improvement in emotion regulation capacity during this period. We used a novel approach to quantify emotion regulation, where participants performed a cognitively taxing working memory task (the N-Back) before and after a manipulation designed to elicit strong negative feelings (anger or embarrassment). Performance on the N-Back should be impaired by strong emotion (Baumeister et al., 2007; Richards, 2004), and failure to improve in performance from time 1 to time 2 on the N-back following emotion elicitation served as our index of difficulties in emotion regulation. To account for emotional intensity, we assessed emotional state before and after the experimental manipulation. We could therefore test whether any age differences in practice-related improvement on the N-back task were robust to adjustment for emotional intensity (the change in the relevant emotion pre- to post-manipulation). A total of 184 participants between the ages of 14 and 17 (Mage = 15.7, SD = 1.1), and 22 and 30 (Mage = 25.7, SD = 2.3) took part in the study. Overall, emotion elicitation interfered with performance on the N-back task in both age groups. As predicted, adolescents’ performance was more impaired than adults’ when the emotion elicited was embarrassment but not anger. This suggests that adolescents’ emotion regulation capacity is weaker than adults’ for at least some emotions. Importantly, this age difference was not attributable to differences in emotional intensity.
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