Affect labelling is an implicit emotional regulation strategy that can be simply described as “putting feelings into words”.
Refer to Affect Regulation.
Specifically, it refers to the idea that explicitly labelling one’s, typically negative, emotional state results in a reduction of the conscious experience, physiological response, and/or behaviour resulting from that emotional state. For example, writing about a negative experience in one’s journal may improve one’s mood. Some other examples of affect labelling include discussing one’s feelings with a therapist, complaining to friends about a negative experience, posting one’s feelings on social media or acknowledging the scary aspects of a situation.
Affect labelling is an extension of the simple concept that talking about one’s feelings can make oneself feel better. Although this idea has been used in talk therapy for over a century, formal research into affect labelling has only begun in recent years. Already, researchers have quantified some of the emotion-regulatory effects of affect labelling, such as decreases in subjective emotional affect, reduced activity in the amygdala, and a lower skin conductance response to frightening stimuli. As a consequence of being a relatively new technique in the area of emotion regulation, affect labelling tends to be compared to, and is often confused with, emotional reappraisal, another emotion-regulatory technique. A key difference between the two is that while reappraisal intuitively feels like a strategy to control one’s emotions, affect labelling often does not. Even when someone does not intend to regulate their emotions, the act of labelling one’s emotions still has positive effects.
Affect labelling is still in the early stages of research and thus, there is much about it that remains unknown. While there are several theories for the mechanism by which affect labelling acts, more research is needed to provide empirical support for these hypotheses. Additionally, some work has been done on the applications of affect labelling to real-world issues, such as research that suggests affect labelling may be commonplace on social media sites. Affect labelling also sees some use in clinical settings as a tentative treatment for fear and anxiety disorders. Nonetheless, research on affect labelling has largely focused on laboratory studies, and further research is needed to understand its effects in the real world.
The notion that talking about or writing down one’s feelings can be beneficial is not a recent one. People have kept diaries for centuries, and the use of talk therapy dates back to the beginnings of psychotherapy. Over the past few decades, the idea that putting one’s feelings into words can be beneficial has been shown experimentally. More recently, the concept of affect labelling has grown out of this literature, honing in on the emotion regulation aspect of the benefits of vocalising feelings.
In recent years, research on affect labelling has mostly focused on proving its applicability as an emotion regulation strategy. Although some research exists on the behavioural and neural mechanisms behind its effectiveness, this area of study is still in its early, speculative stages.
When engaging in affect labelling, subjects subjectively report lower levels of emotional affect than they do in identical conditions without the affect labelling. This effect is not only found when subjects rate their own emotional state, but also when they label the emotion displayed or evoked by stimuli such as images.
Autonomic responses characteristic of various emotions may decrease after performing affect labelling. For instance, upon quantifying their level of anger on a rating scale, subjects subsequently experienced decreases in heart rate and cardiac output. Research also indicates that giving labels to aversive stimuli results in a lower skin conductance response when similar aversive stimuli are presented in the future, implying affect labelling can have long-term effects on autonomic responses.
Research has found that engaging in affect labelling results in higher brain activity within the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC), and reduced activity in the amygdala when compared to other tasks involving emotional stimuli. In addition, evidence from brain lesion studies also point to the vlPFC’s involvement in the affect labelling process. Subjects with lesions to the right vlPFC were less able to identify the emotional state of a character throughout a film. This implies that the region is required in order for affect-labelling to take place. Additionally, it has been shown through meta-analysis that while the amygdala is found to be active in tasks involving emotional stimuli, activity is lower when subjects had to identify the emotions rather than simply passively viewing the stimuli.
One theory that integrates these findings proposes that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex works to down-regulate activity in the amygdala during affect labelling. This theory is supported by evidence from several studies that found negative connectivity between the two brain regions during an affect-labelling task. Furthermore, researchers have used dynamic causal modelling to show specifically that increased activity in the vlPFC is the cause of lower amygdala activity.
Comparison to Emotional Reappraisal
Emotional reappraisal is an emotion regulation technique where an emotional stimulus is reinterpreted in a new, usually less negative, fashion in order to reduce its effect. As an example, someone might reinterpret a bad test score as being a learning experience, rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of the situation. As it is a related emotion regulation strategy, affect labelling research often draws insight from the existing literature on reappraisal.
The most salient difference between affect labelling and reappraisal lies in people’s perception of the efficacy of affect labelling. Unlike reappraisal, affect labelling’s effectiveness in regulating emotion is fairly unintuitive. Research has shown that while subjects expect reappraisal to reduce emotional distress, they predict the opposite for affect labelling, expecting the vocalisation of feelings to actually increase their emotional distress. In reality, while the magnitude of the reduction in emotional response is found to be stronger for reappraisal than for affect labelling, both strategies produce a noticeable decrease.
Individuals who respond more to reappraisal after the presentation of emotional stimuli tend to also benefit more from affect labelling, indicating they may act through the same mechanism.
Reappraisal and affect labelling share similarities in their neural signatures. As in affect labelling, reappraisal produces activity in the vlPFC while inhibiting response in the amygdala. However, in contrast to affect labelling, reappraisal has also been found to generate activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
One possible explanation for affect labelling’s effectiveness is that it is simply preventing the labeller from fully experiencing the emotional response by drawing their attention away. Distraction techniques have been shown to elicit similar neural activity as affect labelling, with increased activity in the vlPFC and decreased in the amygdala. Additionally, some explicit distraction paradigms have been shown to result in similar reductions of negative emotions.
However, evidence is mixed on this front, as other tasks that involve turning attention away, such as a gender labelling task, do not produce the same reduction. Applications of affect labelling seem to suggest that the mechanism of action is not simply distraction. When applied with exposure therapy, affect labelling was found to be much more effective in reducing skin conductance response than distraction. Affect labelling is also known to result in long-term benefits in clinical settings, whereas distraction is generally considered to negatively affect progress.
Another proposed mechanism for affect labelling is through self-reflection. Emotional introspection differs from affect labelling in that it does not require explicit labelling of emotion; however, engaging in introspection has similar effects to affect labelling. As such, rather than being the entire process, affect labelling could act as a first-step in an emotional introspective process. Evidence supporting this mechanism uses a measure of dispositional mindfulness to quantify people’s ability to self-reflect. Researchers were able to link dispositional mindfulness to affect labelling by showing that people with higher levels of dispositional mindfulness showed stronger brain activation in regions associated with affect labelling, such as the vlPFC. Additionally, they showed greater reductions in activity in the amygdala, suggesting that mindfulness modulates the effectiveness of affect labelling, and lending support to the idea that introspection is the mechanism of action.
Unfortunately, this theory of affect labelling struggles to explain affect labelling’s benefits on stimuli that do not apply to the self. For instance, the regulatory effects of labelling external stimuli, such as faces or aversive images presented during an experiment, are unlikely to be explained by a self-reflective process.
Reduction of Uncertainty
People are known to be ambiguity averse, and the complexity of emotion can often create uncertainty in feelings that is unpleasant. Some researchers believe that affect labelling acts by reducing uncertainty in emotion. This is supported by neural evidence connecting uncertainty to activity in the amygdala. Affect labelling has been shown to down-regulate activity in the amygdala, and this may be a result of the reduction of uncertainty of feelings.
Evidence against this theory is the fact that while some emotions are characteristically uncertain, such as fear or anxiety, others tend to be more straightforward, e.g. sadness and anger. Since affect labelling is known to work across all these types of emotions, it is unlikely that uncertainty reduction is the only mechanism by which it acts.
Another theory of affect labelling posits that the act of labelling is a sort of symbolic encoding of information, changing the stimulus into language. It has been proposed that this symbolic conversion may act as a type of psychological distancing from the stimulus, leading to overall lower levels of affect. While affect labelling specifically refers to giving labels to emotions, assigning abstract content labels, such as identifying objects as “human”, “landscape”, etc., has been found to yield many of the same benefits. There is neural evidence to support this as well. Several studies have found that when subjects classify stimuli based on non-emotional categories, they exhibit greater vlPFC activity and less activity in the amygdala, just like in affect labelling. The fact that labelling non-emotional stimuli has similar effects to that of emotional stimuli suggests that the simple act of converting a stimulus into language may be driving the effect.
The act of posting about one’s feelings on social media sites such as Twitter is a type of affect labelling. One research study analysed 74,487 Twitter users’ tweets for emotional contact, classifying tweets as either before or after instances of affect labelling, which were identified as tweets stating “I feel…”. The researchers found that emotions tended to increase in valence over time in tweets preceding the affect labelling tweet, with the greatest positive or negative emotion being experienced closest to the act of labelling. After the affect labelling tweet, the emotional intensity of the following tweets was found to fall off quickly, going back to baseline levels of valence. The results of this study support the application of affect labelling as an emotion regulation strategy in real-world settings, and show that social media users engage, potentially unknowingly, in affect labelling all the time.
A small body of work has begun to look at affect labelling’s potential as a clinical treatment in conjunction with exposure therapy for phobias, anxiety disorders, and other stress disorders.
One study found that subjects with high public speaking anxiety who chose from a set of predetermined emotion words to describe their feelings before giving a speech in front of an audience showed greater reductions in anxiety, quantified by physiological responses such as heart rate, than subjects who performed a control, shape-matching, task before giving their speeches. These results suggest that combining affect labelling with an exposure treatment is more effective than exposure alone. Notably, the affect labelling and control conditions found no difference in self-reported anxiety; however, physiological responses characteristic of anxiety were reduced for the subjects who performed the affect labelling.
Another study found similar results in spider-fearful individuals, exposing them to a tarantula over two days while simultaneously verbalising their feelings. Compared to subjects in reappraisal, distraction, and control conditions, subjects who engaged in affect labelling showed lower skin conductance response than the other conditions, although there was no difference between conditions in self-reported fear.
Although there is tentative evidence for the value of affect labelling in clinical settings, researchers acknowledge that there is still a need for many more studies drawing from clinical populations in order to deduce the value of using affect labelling in conjunction with other treatments before it can be safely adopted into practice.
Limitations and Concerns
The use of self-report measures of emotion in psychological research may invoke affect labelling, even in studies unrelated to the topic. Whether or not this poses a problem for emotion researchers is still largely unknown.
Although affect labelling appears be effective in laboratory studies with many participants, as with all psychological phenomena, individuals will vary in their experience. The reasons for individual differences in the effectiveness of affect labelling are in need of further research. Furthermore, paradigms used to study affect labelling differ widely, with some providing subjects with pre-prepared labels to select, while others require subjects to self-generate their own labels. These paradigms produce noticeable differences in results, with self-generative paradigms finding more long-term delayed effects of regulation, and pre-prepared paradigms finding immediate effects. The explanation for the differences in these results is still relatively unexplored, though some suspect it may be due to pre-prepared labels implying a kind of interpersonal emotion regulation, since it may be interpreted as a kind of support from the experimenter.
Whether or not the laboratory findings about affect labelling are applicable to affect labelling in the real world is another question researchers must ask. The situations in which people use affect labelling in real life are rich with context, and it is difficult to say whether the particular operationalisations of affect labelling used in a study allow the results to generalise.