Choosing to Regulate Emotions: Pursuing Emotion Goals in Autonomy-Supportive and Controlling Contexts

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2019 Dec;45(12):1666-1680. doi: 10.1177/0146167219838557. Epub 2019 Apr 12.


We applied self-determination theory to emotion regulation and tested the potential effects of autonomy-supportive and controlling contexts on the pursuit of emotion goals. In four experimental studies (N = 242), participants viewed a fear-eliciting film clip or emotion-eliciting pictures and were prompted to pursue emotion goals with either autonomy-supportive or controlling instructions. Participants in both conditions were equally likely to engage in emotion regulation when directly instructed to do so. However, when they were allowed to spontaneously choose whether to regulate emotions or not, participants in the autonomy-supportive contexts were more likely than those in the controlling ones to independently pursue emotion goals. The latter also engaged in more defensive processing of emotion-eliciting stimuli than the former. These results indicate that people are more likely to pursue emotion goals of their own accord when the context in which they pursue them is autonomy supportive, rather than controlling.

Keywords: autonomy support; defensiveness; emotion goals; emotion regulation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Emotional Regulation*
  • Emotions
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Young Adult