Research has recently turned to studying individual differences in ER as a predictor of emotional eating (Evers et al., 2010
). With the present study, we extended previous research by allowing participants to choose not only how much they wanted to eat but also whether they wanted to eat at all (ad libitum
food intake). Thus, the present study differentiated between two core questions: “Who begins to eat?” and “How much do people eat when they start to eat?” Also, this study is the first to investigate whether there are differences in the effectiveness between the two ER strategies (suppression, reappraisal) when they are employed at the same point in the unfolding of the emotional response.
Focusing on the question “Who began to eat?” the present results clearly show that participants in the reappraisal group were less likely to eat both chocolate and crisps, compared to the control and suppression groups. Among the reappraisal group, only 1/3 started to eat, whereas 3/4 among the suppression group and 3/4 among the control group started to eat. Thus, reappraising but expressing negative emotions seems to be a highly effective regulation strategy; whereas, suppression appears to be rather ineffective.
Consequently, across the total sample, including both participants who started to eat and those who did not, the amount of consumed food differed greatly in dependence of the ER condition. Within the reappraisal group, the amount of consumed food was on average significantly lower than in the suppression or control groups. On average, reappraisers ate 61% less than suppressors and 68% less than the control group. These results are consistent with findings from related studies suggesting that reappraisal, in comparison to suppression, is associated with reduced food intake in women (e.g., Evers et al., 2010
) and a reduced desire to binge in women with binge eating disorder (Svaldi et al., 2010
However, a greatly different picture emerged when the impact of ER strategies on the amount of consumed food was analyzed for participants who actually ate from the respective food item. In contrast to previous research, participants were free to eat or not to eat in the present ad libitum
food setting, thus allowing for the distinction between the question “who begins to eat?” and the question “how much do people eat, when they start to eat?” The present results show that reappraisers ate as much as participants in the suppression group or in the control group once they had begun to eat. Thus, the main difference between the three ER conditions seems to be whether eating is employed as a secondary regulation strategy at all rather than the amount of food needed for secondary regulation as suggested in previous research (e.g., Evers et al., 2010
Interestingly, reappraisers did not show a lower level or increase in NA or fear compared to the suppressors or the control group. The comparable level or increase in negative emotions across all three emotions regulation conditions was probably due to the timing of ER instruction. By giving the ER instructions after the negative event had started to unfold, we aimed at improving the ecological validity of the study. Specifically, the sequence (1) negative stimulus, (2) NA, (3) ER instruction, (4) secondary coping response (eating yes/no) reflects real-life situations in a more ecologically valid way since we rarely have the chance to reappraise a negative emotional event before we actually deal with it. However, one could argue that at higher levels of emotional intensity, the differences in effectiveness between the reappraisal and suppression might be blurred (Sheppes and Gross, 2011
). Thus, only using ER for the second movie clip might have caused an intensification of negative emotions in all conditions. Reappraisal, employed relatively late in the emotion iterative phase was weakened, given that most of the cognitive resources were allocated to managing the unfolding emotion. Though reappraisal was not effective in alleviating negative emotions, reappraisal was nonetheless more “sparing” in terms of resource allocation, allowing participants to better regulate food intake.
Hence, the results suggest that the advantage of reappraisal is that people have the same emotional outcome (increase in NA) but with less reliance on maladaptive secondary regulation strategies such as eating, compared to suppressors or the control group. Therefore, the total “net profit” is more favorable for reappraisal than for suppression or spontaneous emotions regulation since less reliance on secondary maladaptive coping is required in order to arrive at the same emotional outcome. One might speculate that suppression is a comparably costly regulation strategy that leads to more rapid self-regulation depletion, which is in turn supplemented by secondary regulation strategies such as eating. However, this is speculative and future studies might trace the course of eating (e.g., delay in eating, pace of eating).
In the present study, the control group, which received no ER instruction, behaved in a highly similar way to the suppression group. Both groups were more likely to eat than the reappraisal group. Consequently, both groups consumed more food when all participants, irrespective of their eating status (eating vs. non-eating), were included in the analyses. Conversely, in the study conducted by Evers et al. (2010
the control group ate less than the suppression group. We would like to argue that these inconsistent findings reflect the puzzling inconsistency previously reported in empirical studies examining the effect of negative emotions on eating within normal eaters (cf. Macht, 2008
). Specifically, since the control condition received no regulatory instruction, the strategies employed depend on the respective sample and might differ between the studies, resulting in the observed inconsistent results.
All participants were asked to refrain from eating for the 3
h prior to the experiment. Thus, food might become more attractive to participants and eating might had become the “default” option or right strategy. In general, 3
h of non-eating is commonly considered as a mild form of “deprivation” precluding that participants are completely satiated (Oliver et al., 2000
; Schupp and Renner, 2011
). Moreover, assuming that eating becomes the “default” option after 3
h of non-eating, we should have found a general increase in the frequency of eating across groups. However, we found a pronounced differential eating pattern independent of the ER strategy, rendering a “default option” rather unlikely. Moreover, there was neither a difference in hunger levels between groups nor in the elapsed time prior to eating. Accordingly, we would like to argue that eating in the present context was mainly a secondary coping reaction.
However, the type of ER is but one factor contributing to emotional eating. One might speculate that a high tendency to regulate NA by eating can be counteracted not only by ER but also by a high capacity of self-control (Sproesser et al., 2011
). Overall, general self-control seems to be an important moderator of food choice and healthy diet, opposing emotional eating, and influencing the extent to which foods are considered tempting (de Ridder and de Wit, 2006
As the manipulation check showed, there might be some co-activation of ER strategies (Szasz et al., 2011
). ER is employed spontaneously when an emotional encounter occurs, even in the absence of specific instructions (Gross, 2008
); therefore individual preferences for certain types of ER can interfere with ER instructions. However, our results confirmed that participants used the ER strategies they were encouraged to use, even though they mainly employed other ER strategies spontaneously.
Despite these limitations, our results are innovative in two ways. First, they show that different ER strategies are associated with different odds of eating in the first place. Secondly, even when reappraisal is employed relatively late in the emotional process, it is still associated with a lower rate and a lower amount of food intake, although it is not as beneficial for reducing negative emotions. Thus, the main difference between the two ER strategies, suppression and reappraisal, is whether or not eating is needed as a secondary coping strategy, rather than differences in the amount of consumed food per person as suggested in the study by Evers et al. 2010
All in all, this study adds to the growing body of evidence, showing that the combination of ER strategies might be crucial for adaptive ER. Moreover, it seems to be pertinent to take the “total net outcome” into account in terms of invested self-regulatory resources and behavioral outcome. In the face of negative events, successful reappraisers who show a low level of suppression, might feel as threatened and scared as suppressors but require less high caloric “fuel” to arrive at the same emotional condition.