Do the ends dictate the means in emotion regulation?

Yael Millgram*, Gal Sheppes, Elise K. Kalokerinos, Peter Kuppens, Maya Tamir

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although selecting emotion regulation strategies constitutes means to achieve emotion goals (i.e., desired emotional states), strategy selection and goals have been studied independently. We propose that the strategies people select are often dictated by what they want to feel. We tested the possibility that emotion regulation involves choosing strategies that match emotion goals. We expected people who are motivated to decrease emotional intensity to select strategies that are tailored for decreasing emotions (e.g., distraction), whereas those who are motivated to increase emotional intensity to select strategies that are tailored for increasing emotions (e.g., rumination). We expected this pattern to be evident both in the lab and in everyday life. We first verified that some strategies (i.e., distraction) are more effective in decreasing, and other strategies (i.e., rumination) more effective in increasing emotions (Study 1). Next, we tested whether emotion goals (decrease vs. increase emotion) direct the selection of strategies inside (Studies 2-3) and outside (Study 4) the laboratory. As predicted, participants were more likely to select strategies that decrease emotions (e.g., distraction, suppression) when motivated to decrease, and strategies that increase emotions (e.g., rumination) when motivated to increase negative (Studies 2-4) and positive (Study 3) emotions. Finally, in Study 5, we demonstrated that emotional dysfunction is linked to less flexibility in matching strategies to goals. Compared to healthy participants, depressed participants selected rumination less for increasing emotions and selected distraction less for decreasing emotions. Our findings show that what people want to feel can determine how they regulate emotions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-96
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019


  • Choice
  • Depression
  • Emotion regulation
  • Goals
  • Strategies


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