Home > Memory > Hiding Your Emotions: Useful, But Also Hurtful

Hiding Your Emotions: Useful, But Also Hurtful

In many social situations, it is necessary to hide what you are feeling.  Take, for example, that you hate your boss.  Just because you hate him doesn’t mean you can openly express your feelings of dislike for him, because that would leave you, in all likelihood, jobless.  In this situation, suppressing your emotional expressions is beneficial to you. Decreasing your outward expression of felt emotions is called emotion suppression.  Many adults are very good at suppressing their emotions and do it frequently in their day-to-day lives in order to avoid controversy or in order to stay within social norms.  Emotion suppression is beneficial for people in many social contexts, but does using emotion suppression have any other benefits besides its social advantages? Or are there any harmful effects that come with using emotion suppression?

Previous research has shown that although emotional suppression decreases outward signs of emotion, it does not actually lower the emotional experience of the person. For example, if a person is saddened by receiving a poor grade but, suppresses their sadness and acts happy to their peers to avoid embarrassment, then they are successfully hiding their feelings from onlookers, but it does not change the amount of sadness the person is actually feeling.  Hiding one’s feelings does not make those feelings go away.  In addition, emotional suppression actually increases the physical symptoms experienced with the emotional experience, such as sweating or increased heart rate.  Psychologists, Richards & Gross completed a study that investigated the effects of emotion suppression on cognitive functioning.  More specifically, their study looked at whether or not emotion expression would have consequences on the remembering of events that occurred during suppression.

Richards and Gross performed two studies to test this.  In the first study, 58 female college students were individually shown a slide show of 18 slides, presented in three sets of 6.  Each slide had a picture of a wounded man on it with fictitious biographical information beside it.  The first and third sets of slides elicited low levels of negative affect because the men were only slightly injured, but the second set called forth high levels of negative affect because the men in this set were badly wounded.  The participants were assigned to one of two conditions: suppression or no-suppression.  In the suppression group, participants were told to watch the slide show, but not outwardly express their emotions (to behave in such a way that a person watching them would not know what they were feeling).  The no-suppression group was not given this instruction, so were allowed to express their emotions freely.  After watching the slides, the participants were given two memory tests, which both assessed recall accuracy of the biographical information that accompanied each of the slides.  The participants rated how they were feeling during every slide in order to measure their emotional experience.  Results showed, like previous research has illustrated, that both groups experienced roughly the same amount of emotion even though the suppression group was not expressing their emotions.  Participants using emotional suppression did, however, do significantly worse than the no-suppression group on the memory tests.  This shows how emotional suppression affects cognitive functions, like memory. And in this case, specifically, how emotional suppression affects the encoding of information from short-term memory into long-term memory.

In the second study, the participants were 85 female undergraduate students, and the experimenters used the same procedure as study 1 except for that the second study added the measurement of physiological activity (heartbeat intervals, blood pressure, temperature, and skin conductance) in order to investigate the effects of emotion suppression on the activation of physical responses.  The results of this study replicated the findings of study 1, but also showed that the suppression condition experienced a higher activation of the cardiovascular system.  This means that emotional suppression causes the body to undergo a higher level of activation in response to the emotional experience, even though both groups are feeling roughly the same amount of emotion.

These studies show that although the use of emotional suppression can be socially beneficial, it can also cause impairment to cognitive functioning.  So before studying for an important test, make sure you are not suppressing emotions, because it will only make it harder for you to encode the information into your long term memory to later be used during your exam.  Therefore, next time that you decide to suppress your emotions, remember that there are consequences that come with this socially beneficial decision.


Richards, J. M., & Gross, J. J. (1999). Composure at any cost? The cognitive consequences of emotion suppression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 1033-1044.

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  1. May 6th, 2013 at 21:18 | #1

    Strong article! I’m assuming that they were testing long-term memory in this study, but I think it would be interesting to conduct a study comparing the effects of emotion suppression on short vs. long term memory. I think this would be interesting because we attune to stimuli that are emotionally charged much easier than boring stimuli. Therefore we could understand if emotion suppression impairs our attention and short term memory as well as our long term memory.

  2. May 6th, 2013 at 23:11 | #2

    I think this is really interesting because emotional suppression seems to be an almost automatic process in many situations. Because it was shown that people who suppress their emotions perform worse on memory recall, this suggests that suppressing emotion is a controlled process that is detrimental to productivity. I’ve read about a lot of evidence discussing the negative impacts of suppression on emotion and mood, but it is interesting that it is shown to impact cognitive functions as well.

  3. May 7th, 2013 at 19:32 | #3

    I agree, this article is particularly pertinent given its applicability to most social situations. But I wonder what exactly causes the lapse in memory from the emotionally suppressed? Is it an encoding issue, as the participants are prevented from fully processing the stimuli? Or is it a retrieval error – as participants have been primed to not react to the information in front of them – and therefore cannot access it? It would also be interesting to extrapolate the findings of the study and determine if emotional suppression caused long term health problems from heightened cardiovascular activation.

  4. May 9th, 2013 at 17:19 | #4

    I think it’s really interesting that emotional suppression actually increases the physiological activation experienced with the emotional experience. I have definitely experienced being burning with anger but not being able to express it in the current situation. Having to hold that anger in just makes it explode even more when it finally comes out! The same thing happens with sadness. When I’m really sad but know I can’t cry at the moment, I just dwell on how sad I am and am unable to cry, let it out, and get over it. However it also works with happiness! When I am really excited or happy but have to wait a little bit to scream and do a happy dance, just sitting there internally pondering my happiness makes it that much better. Such an interesting phenomenon.

  5. May 12th, 2013 at 19:41 | #5

    Really interesting article! I had heard about the physiological effects of suppressing emotional expressions, but this is the first I have heard about how it effects the cognitive system. This study seems to focus on the suppression of negative emotions, so it leads me to wonder if the suppression of positive emotions (like overwhelming joy or excitedness) would have the same effects on memory tests. This is such an interesting finding and it might make me reconsider my actions the next time I think about suppressing my negative emotions in certain social situations.

  6. May 12th, 2013 at 21:39 | #6

    I also found this article extremely interesting and relevant to my life. During my senior year of high school, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend a week before a midterm and had a very difficult time remembering crucial information. I can’t help but wonder whether teachers ever take into account how a student’s emotional health and mental state can impact his or her academic performance. I also am curious if researchers have figured out the “best way” to effectively handle emotionally stressful situations so that people can move on with their life and prevent any problems in terms of cognitive functions. I think that such research would be really helpful for students, specifically college students given the unique culture associated with college.

  7. tojama
    May 13th, 2013 at 14:55 | #7

    I loved reading this article! I think as teens we all go through daily suppressing our emotional expressions. I have become one of those individuals who no matter how hard I try sometimes, it is very difficult for me to suppress how I feel. I remember participating in an experiment like this at Colby. I walked into the room and was told that I would be participating in the experiment with someone else. The only other instructions I was given was that I would watch these videos the computer and would then rate how they made me feel. At the end of the six videos, I was told to complete a questionnaire about how the other participant reacted during the study (if her emotional expression was similar to mines or different). What I didn’t know at the time was that the other participant was actually an experimenter. I was in the condition that was allowed to express emotion. After I completed the study I learned that what they were testing was to see if my emotional state would be influenced by the other experimenter, which it was especially since I was in the condition that could openly express my emotions.

  8. May 13th, 2013 at 16:09 | #8

    In continuation of Victoria’s post, I agree that teachers should take into account what their students might be going through emotionally. There is definitely a stigma against letting emotions infiltrate academic performance. Forced suppression of emotions might cause additional stress, in turn increasing the amount of emotions that must be suppressed, further hindering one’s memory. I’m not sure what would be an appropriate way to deal with this, though, because it would be extremely inefficient if students postponed exams anytime they were feeling upset or angry. One tactic that I have found helpful, though, is finding professors who I feel comfortable talking openly with. It is less intimidating to talk about personal problems with professors I trust and am close with, and in turn they are more helpful with making accommodations to help me succeed academically.

  9. May 19th, 2013 at 01:46 | #9

    This is very interesting! It makes sense that there would be a correlation between higher heart rate and lower recall. I mean, the more emotional and physical responses there are the more distracted a person is. Also more attentional resources are going towards suppression, so not as much focus is given to encoding. This leads to obvious detriment in all aspects of memory since, as we have learned throughout the semester, if you aren’t paying attention to something it is not even processed. It goes in one ear and out the other. I also wonder what the individual differences are here. How does one’s ability to hide emotions correlate with memory performance? Would someone better able to contain their emotions do better on recall?

  10. May 19th, 2013 at 22:01 | #10

    This is such a relevant and important article for people our age. Especially for people that have trouble expressing their emotions and find themselves suppressing their true feelings a majority of the time it must be very important for them to take that into account when it comes to their ability to perform well on tests. This post reminded me of our classes on memory and discussing the memory sins of omission and how certain studies have shown situations where people who were victims of rape or abuse have completely blocked out the event from their memory. The idea that emotional suppression can cause us to forget information made me think about this, and the idea that such events that require us to disguise emotions and put our focus elsewhere can actually have the ability to erase events from memory.

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