The importance of being flexible: the ability to both enhance and suppress emotional expression predicts long-term adjustment.
Researchers have documented the consequences of both expressing and suppressing emotion using between-subjects designs. It may be argued, however, that successful adaptation depends not so much on any one regulatory process, but on the ability to flexibly enhance or suppress emotional expression in accord with situational demands. We tested this hypothesis among New York City college students in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Subjects' performance in a laboratory task in which they enhanced emotional expression, suppressed emotional expression, and behaved normally on different trials was examined as a prospective predictor of their adjustment across the first two years of college. Results supported the flexibility hypothesis. A regression analysis controlling for initial distress and motivation and cognitive resources found that subjects who were better able to enhance and suppress the expression of emotion evidenced less distress by the end of the second year. Memory deficits were also observed for both the enhancement and the suppression tasks, suggesting that both processes require cognitive resources.