ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (6): 905-919.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.00905

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Emotion regulation promotes forgetting of negative social feedback: Behavioral and EEG evidence

XIE Hui1, LIN Xuanyi1, HU Wanrou1, HU Xiaoqing1,2()   

  1. 1Department of Psychology, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong 999077, China
    2The State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong 999077, China
  • Published:2023-06-25 Online:2023-03-10
  • Contact: HU Xiaoqing


Receiving negative social feedback, e.g., social rejection, criticism, can bring social pain. Painful experiences tend to get sticky in minds that cause sustained mental distress, thereby contributing to the onset of psychiatric disorders such as depression. Here, we asked whether engaging in different emotion regulation strategies (cognitive reappraisal and distraction) toward negative social feedback would relieve subjective social pain and facilitate forgetting of unwanted social feedback. Besides, we examined whether and how individual differences in depressive symptoms may influence the neural activity and behavioral benefits of emotion regulation.

During the experiment, participants (N = 66; 16 males; aged 20.6 ± 1.9 years) received positive and negative social personality feedback from their peers in an ostensible peer evaluation task. While reading social feedback, participants were instructed to either naturally watch or actively down-regulate their negative emotions using either cognitive reappraisal or distraction strategy, with electroencephalograms (EEGs) being recorded. Subsequently, participants completed a surprise recall test during which they verbally recalled the feedback upon seeing photos of peers from the previous session. We also measured participants’ self-evaluation and their attitudes toward peers. In addition to immediate tests, participants also completed the same tests after 24 hours to examine possible long-term benefits of emotion regulation. To understand the neural correlates of different emotion regulation strategies, we used both univariate event-related potential (ERP) analysis and the multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA).

Results showed that after receiving negative social feedback, emotion regulation significantly modulated subjective emotional ratings (F(2, 130) = 66.6, p< 0.001, ηp2 = 0.506). Compared to natural watch (4.14 ± 0.81), both reappraisal (5.33 ± 0.95, p < 0.001) and distraction (5.10 ± 0.78, p < 0.001) attenuated participants’ negative ratings (a higher number indicating less negative or more positive feelings). Moreover, emotion regulation also influenced participants’ memory of social feedback valence (F(2, 130) = 7.80, p< 0.001, ηp2 = 0.107) and the specific word (F(2, 130) = 10.0, p< 0.001, ηp2 = 0.134). Specifically, for the valence accuracy, participants scored higher in the natural watch condition (0.50 ± 0.25) than the reappraisal (0.43 ± 0.27, p = 0.007) and distraction (0.41 ± 0.25, p < 0.001) conditions. For the word accuracy, participants recalled more specific words in the natural watch condition (0.07 ± 0.10) than the reappraisal (0.03 ± 0.07, p < 0.001) and distraction (0.03 ± 0.07, p < 0.001) conditions. These results demonstrated that both cognitive reappraisal and distraction induced forgetting of negative social feedback. Importantly, the mnemonic benefits of emotion regulation, i.e., forgetting of negative social feedback, were still evident on Day 2 after a 24-hour delay. In addition, participants' depression level significantly moderated the whole brain EEG activity patterns involved in different emotion regulatory strategies. Specifically, in the low-depression group, frontal-central EEG activity distinguished between watch and reappraisal conditions within 2~5 s post-feedback; whereas in the high-depression group, the whole-brain EEG activity patterns distinguished between watch and distraction conditions within 2~3 s post-feedback. Moreover, the amplitude of central-parietal late positive potential (LPP) under the distraction condition were negatively correlated with participants’ depression level (r = −0.386, p = 0.009), suggesting that participants with higher depressive symptoms might be more effective in using distraction to regulate negative emotion than their low-depression counterparts.

Together, these results demonstrate that both cognitive reappraisal and distraction strategies could alleviate social pain and facilitate forgetting of negative social feedback. Moreover, distraction may be a more suitable regulatory strategy among individuals with high levels of depression. In conclusion, this study broadens our understanding of the relationship between emotion and memory from the perspectives of social cognition and motivated forgetting; and provides insights for the alleviation of social pain using emotion regulation strategies.

Key words: social feedback, emotion regulation, motivated forgetting, depression, EEG