Revealing emotions earns researcher Tall Poppy Science Award

Publication date
Wednesday, 19 Oct 2022

How people experience, communicate and regulate their emotions is an area that has fascinated Dr Amy Dawel - a cognitive and clinical psychologist at the Australian National University (ANU) -  for over a decade.

Her ground breaking research has created a deeper understanding about emotions such as fear and happiness, and the role that gender and cultural differences have in emotion expression. The impact of her work has earned Dr Dawel a 2022 Australian Capital Territory Tall Poppy Science Award.

“Emotion regulation is influenced by genetics and learned through personal experience and from understanding societal norms. Take a moment to think about what happened when you expressed different emotions in your family. Was sadness met with sympathy or shutdown? Was anger met with outrage or understanding?”

People can develop strategies to manage their emotions. Dr Dawel noted, “Often the best strategies are the ones that can be implemented early, before emotions become too intense and overwhelm us.”

Dr Dawel’s work during the COVID-19 lockdown in Australia measured two emotion regulation strategies - cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression.

“Cognitive reappraisal involves trying to change the way we think about something. For example, thinking about lockdown as an opportunity to spend time with loved ones or rekindle a hobby.”

“Previous research has established a clear link between using cognitive reappraisal and reduced depression and anxiety symptoms. Surprisingly, we found this relationship was not evident during the early stages of the pandemic. We believe people may have had difficulty using this strategy in a high stress environment like the pandemic.”

“Expressive suppression is when we try to hide our emotions from the world by controlling our expressions of them. For example, putting on a cheerful face when feeling down. Generally, this approach is associated with negative mental health outcomes,” Dr Dawel advised.

“As expected, during lockdown, those who hid negative emotions ended up with negative mental health outcomes. However, we discovered something new. Previously, it was assumed that expressive suppression (hiding emotions) causes poorer mental health but our longitudinal data showed that hiding negative emotions may be an outcome rather than a cause of feeling low.”

Building upon her work in emotion regulation and social norms, Dr Dawal recently looked at gender roles and emotional display rules.

Dr Dawel explained, “Display rules are the beliefs people have about how they should express their emotions. We asked individuals how important they believed it was for them personally, and for men and women in general, to control expressions of different emotions.”

“We found men and women believed it was equally important for them personally to control their expressions of emotion, including emotions that communicate vulnerability, like fear and sadness.”

“Interestingly, men believed it was more important that men control their expressivity than for women. This result suggests that men have internalised gender differences in the way they display their emotions. We also found placing a high importance on controlling expressions of emotion was related to social anxiety,” Dr Dawel highlighted.

The breadth of research topics related to emotions is wide and varied, and Dr Dawel’s lab is at the forefront of new discoveries. More recently her lab has started looking at how people relate to computer generated beings, examining whether humans develop emotional rapport with avatars such as healthcare workers and virtual human influencers.

With all of these high impact investigations and findings, it is clear why Dr Dawel has been recognised as an outstanding early career scientist and a future scientific leader.

Dr Dawel joins three other ANU researchers in the 2022 Tall Poppy honour roll.