Emotions are an essential part of human experience. They contribute in important ways to health, well-being and the quality of relationships with other people. Research has shown that human emotions include internal experiences, outward expressions, and complex physiological activity. These facets of emotion can vary in their degree of consistency or coherence. It is generally assumed that coherent emotional responses are crucial to well-being, health, and social functioning. For example, accurate communication of felt emotion depends on coherence between internal experience and outward expressions. Accuracy in emotion communication may benefit people by improving their social connections. Similarly, the ability to regulate one’s own emotions depends on coherence between internal experience and physiological activity. Successful emotion regulation contributes in many ways to health, well-being, and other social benefits. The general consensus of much emotion theory is that emotions involve coherence and that coherence has a positive function. Yet, very little empirical research evidence supports these assumptions. This project systematically investigates the nature of emotional coherence and its functional implications for well-being. By better understanding the nature of coherence in the response systems of emotion, it will be easier to discern healthy from unhealthy emotions and to develop interventions aimed at improving the quality of people’s lives. Beyond this, emotions are centrally involved in a large number of important social phenomena, including empathy, aggression, prejudice, close relationships, and decision making. A better understanding of emotion coherence will support interventions in these areas.

This project examines basic questions about the nature of coherence (Objective 1) and the functional implications of coherence for well-being (Objective 2). The research approach is based on the fact that behavior and physiology vary in terms of their visibility and their signal value to others (primarily interpersonal function) versus to the self (primarily intrapersonal function). A distinction is therefore made between experience-behavior coherence and experience-physiology coherence. Four studies combine tightly controlled laboratory studies with ecologically valid approaches. To address Objective 1, coherence among experiential, behavioral, and autonomic physiological responses is measured during a range of emotional states, and compared to coherence during neutral states. Consistency is assessed across the two types of coherence, over time, among different emotions, and in different contexts. Objective 2 is addressed by assessing prospective associations between individuals’ coherence and well-being in correlational and intervention designs. This objective also tests theoretically motivated mechanisms in the link between coherence and well-being: social connectedness (as a mechanism of experience-behavior coherence) and effective emotion regulation (as a mechanism of experience-physiology coherence). The design allows tests of a wide range of correlates (e.g., awareness), potential confounds (e.g., emotion level), and moderators (e.g., emotion valence). The ultimate aim of the project is to advance understanding of fundamental questions about emotion: Do response systems cohere in emotions, how can coherence be characterized, and what functions might coherence serve for humans? The research also aims to advance basic understanding of what constitutes healthy versus disordered emotion. Given the central role of emotion in well-being, psychological and physical health, social functioning, performance, and decisions, the insights generated by the project are expected to have important applied implications, including the identification of potential interventions that improve well-being and help people to avoid diseases. The research samples include people of diverse age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, thus enabling generalizability and informing the goal of redressing societal disparities in health and well-being.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Steven J. Breckler
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University of California Berkeley
United States
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