Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do
about it: Mapping the relation between emotion
differentiation and emotion regulation
Lisa Feldman Barrett
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, USA
Stanford University, Palo Alto, USA
Tamlin Conner Christensen and Michael Benvenuto
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, USA
Individuals differ considerably in their emotion experience. Some experience
emotions in a highly differentiated manner, clearly distinguishing among a variety
of negative and positive discrete emotions. Others experience emotions in a
relatively undifferentiated manner, treating a range of like-valence terms as
interchangeable. Drawing on self-regulation theory, we hypothesised that indivi-
duals with highly differentiated emotion experience should be better able to
regulate emotions than individuals with poorly differentiated emotion experience.
In particular, we hypothesised that emotion differentiation and emotion regulation
would be positively related in the context of intense negative emotions, where the
press for emotion regulation is generally greatest. To test this hypothesis, parti-
cipants’ negative and positive emotion differentiation was assessed using a 14-day
diary protocol. Participants’ regulation of negative and positive emotions was
assessed using laboratory measures. As predicted, negative emotion differentiation
was positively related to the frequency of negative emotion regulation, particularly
at higher levels of emotional intensity.
COGNITION AND EMOTION, 2001, 15 (6), 713–724
Correspondenc e should be addressed to Lisa Feldman Barrett at Department of Psychology,
Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, 02467; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Portions of this article were presented at the bi-annual meeting of the International Society for
Research on Emotion, WuÈrzburg, Germany, 1998, and at the annual meetin g of the Society for
Experimental Social Psychology, Lexington, KY, 1998. Preparation of this article was facilitated by
a grant from the National Science Foundation to Li sa Feldman Barrett (SBR 9727896) and by a grant
from the National Institute of Mental Health to James Gross (MH58147).
#2001 Psychology Press Ltd
At times, we know exactly how we feel: we are angered by blocked goals,
saddened by a loss, or afraid of an impending challenge. At such times, we
represent our feelings in a precise and differentiated fashion. Knowing how we
feel helps to inform us about the significance of the immediate situation, to work
out what we should do next, and to indicate what, if anything, we should do
about changing how we feel. At other times, however, our feelings are a
hopeless muddle. At such times, we represent our feelings in a global fashion,
and resort to describing our feelings as generally pleasant or unpleasant. Not
knowing precisely how we feel, it’s that much harder to use our feelings as
information about our current situation (Schwarz & Clore, 1983, 1996), to work
out what to do next, and to figure out how to go about modifying how we feel.
Just as there are differences in emotional differentiation within any one person
across situations (Feldman Barrett & Aronson, 1998), so too there are differ-
ences in emotional differentiation between individuals (Feldman, 1995; Feldman
Barrett, 1998). Some individuals tend to parse their emotional experience in a
discrete, differentiated fashion. In intensive repeated-measure studies, such as
those afforded by experience-sampling procedures, these individuals display
more distinctive representations of their felt experience across time. They evi-
dence smaller correlations between negative states, such as anger, sadness, and
nervousness, or between different positive states, such as happiness, relaxation,
In contrast, other individuals represent their emotional experiences in an
undifferentiated fashion along a single pleasant-unpleasant dimension. These
individuals evidence large positive correlations between self-reports of similarly
valenced emotional states across episodes. Such correlations suggest that at any
given time, these individuals are not distinguishing between different emotional
experiences, but rather they are using emotion language to represent the general
pleasantness or unpleasantness of their feelings.1One important implication of
differences in emotion differentiation is that individuals who have highly dif-
ferentiated emotion experiences may have more highly activated discrete
emotion knowledge during the representation process than individuals with
global emotion experiences. The emotion knowledge includes the abstract cause
of an experience (i.e., we become angry with someone, afraid of something, sad
about something), its relational context, the expected bodily sensations, its
expressive modes (i.e., display rules for expression), and sequences of action to
take to enhance or reduce the experience (i.e., plans of emotion regulation;
Mesquita & Frijda, 1992; Shweder, 1993). These mental representations func-
1Emotion differentiation is defined by associations, rather than absolute co-occurrence of level,
in self-reports of emotional experience.
714 FELDMAN BAR RETT ET AL.
tion like culturally constructed internal guides or working models of emotional
episodes (Saarni, 1993). Thus, individual differences in emotion differentiation
may provide important clues regarding the extent to which discrete emotion
knowledge is activated during the process of experiencing emotion.
Emotion differentiation and emotion regulation
If greater emotion differentiation is associated with more highly activated dis-
crete emotion knowledge, emotion differentiation should have implications for
emotion regulation. This is because discrete emotion concepts provide a wealth
of information regarding the behavioural repertoire for dealing with the
experience and coping with the larger situation. If this information is highly
accessible in those who generate differentiated conscious emotional experiences
(because the knowledge contained in those concepts is activated), but not in
those with relatively undifferentiated emotional experiences, individuals with
highly differentiated emotion experience should be at an advantage in regulating
We might expect this differentiation-regulation relationship to be strongest in
the context of intense negative emotions, where the press for emotion regulation
is greatest. Although individuals report regulating both positive and negative
emotions (Parrott, 1993), the greatest call for emotion regulation typically comes
when there are high levels of negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear.
Negative emotional experiences have great informational value in signalling the
need to change or adjust one’s current state or activity (Pratto & John, 1991).
Moreover, failure to respond to a negative signal can be very costly because an
individual may not take steps to avoid potential harm (Quigley & Feldman
Barrett, 1999). In contrast, positive emotions appear to motivate an individual to
broaden and build, that is, to explore new intellectual and social pursuits and
store resources for future negative events that require regulatory attempts (see
Fredrickson, 1998, for a review). Failure to capitalise on a positive signal may
prove costly in the long run, but is unlikely to have the immediate effects
associated with failure to regulate a negative emotional episode.
All negative emotion does not require regulation, however. Intense emotional
experiences are more motivationally relevant (Frijda, 1986; Smith & Pope,
1992) and likely signal the need for active coping (Lazarus, 1991) more so than
do less intense experiences. Although many individuals experience their emo-
tions intensely, not everyone can identify what they are feeling with precision
and clarity (Gohm & Clore, 2000). On average, individuals who are aware that
they feel intensely negative may be more motivated to regulate their experience,
but their ability to determine that they are angry, sad, or afraid should facilitate
their regulatory attempts.
Given the particular press to regulate intense negative emotions, we reasoned
that those who could regulate intense negative emotions would do so, and that
EMOTION DIFFERENTIATIO N AND REGULATION 715
individuals with high levels of negative emotion differentiation who also
experienced intense emotional states should therefore report the greatest levels
of negative emotion regulation.
OVERVIEW OF THE PRESENT S TUDY
To test our hypothesis that emotion differentiation should be positively related to
emotion regulation, we assessed emotion differentiation and sampled broadly
from a theoretically defined set of emotion regulatory strategies. To assess
emotion differentiation, we asked participants to complete daily diaries for two
weeks concerning their most intense emotion experiences. Emotion differ-
entiation and intensity indices were computed from these experience-sampling
data. To assess emotion regulation, we asked participants to indicate the extent
to which they had regulated their negative and positive emotion over a two week
period. To ensure that there were no artifactual dependencies between our
measures of emotion differentiation and emotion regulation, we used a recall-
based measure of emotion regulation, and obtained this measure prior to the
experience-sampling period used to estimate emotion differentiation.
Our specific prediction was that individuals who reporte d intense negative
emotions, and who showed high levels of negative emotion differentiation in
their diary reports, would report the greatest negative emotion regulation
A total of 53 participants (19 men) completed diary ratings and three laboratory
sessions. The majority of participants (90.5%of final sample) completed at least
three-quarters of their diaries over the observation week. On average, partici-
pants completed 13 of the 14 diaries (SD = 2.21) with a minimum of 5 and a
maximum of 14. All participants received course credit and tickets for a US$50
lottery for their participation.2
Emotion differentiation. We adapted the Rochester Interaction Record
(RIR; Reis & Wheeler, 1991) to assess the nature of participants’ most intense
emotional experience of the day. Participants rated their most intense emotional
2Participants were removed from the sample if: (1) they did not complete the experience-
sampling portion of the study (9 participants), (2) they reported using memory to complete more than
30%of their diaries (13 participants), or (3) if they did not complete enough diaries to produce
variation in their emotion ratings (6 participants). Remove d participants did not display a consistently
different pattern of responses on any variable s of interest when compared to those who were retained
in the final sample.
716 FELDMAN BAR RETT ET AL.
experience each day for 14 days using a series of nine affect terms on a 5-point
Likert scale (0 = not at all, 4 = very much). From these ratings we computed one
positive and one negative emotion differentiation index. The positive emotion
differentiation index was computed by calculating the correlations between the
experience of happiness,joy,enthusiasm, and amusement across time for each
participant. These emotions were chosen because they represented a range of
prototypical pleasant emotional states. Large correlations reflect large degrees of
co-occurrence, and little differentiation in these emotional states, whereas
smaller correlations reflect smaller degrees of co-occurrenc e and more
differentiation (Feldman Barrett, 1998). Fisher r-to-ztransformations were
performed on all correlations before additional analyses were completed. One
set of correlations was computed and averaged for each participant. A similar
procedure was followed for the negative emotion differentiation index (using the
terms nervous,angry,sad,ashamed , and guilty). Coefficient alphas for the
emotion differentiation indices indicated that individuals who displayed a large
correlation between one pair of positive emotions did so for the others as well, a
for positive emotion differentiation = .83, p<.01. A similar situation occurred
for negative emotions, afor negative emotion differentiation = .73, p<.01.
Negative emotion differentiation indices ranged from r=¡.17 to r= .78, with a
mean of r= .33 and a standard deviation of 0.28. Positive differentiation indices
ranged from r= .23 to r= .93, with a mean of r= .74 and a standard deviation of
.32. Unlike previous findings (Feldman Barrett, 1998), the two differentiation
indices were not correlated, r=¡.10, r.s.
Emotion intensity. A momentary intensity index was derived for each
participant by taking the sum of pleasant emotions for days when positive affect
was the dominant subjective state and of unpleasant emotions on days when
negative affect was the dominant state (e.g., Diener, Larsen, Levine, & Emmons,
1985; Larsen & Diener, 1987). Emotion intensity ranged from 0.63 to 2.64, with
a mean of 1.91 and a standard deviation of 0.45. Intensity was moderately
correlated with both the negative (r= .47, p<.01) and the positive (r= .30, p<
.05) emotion discrimination indices.
Emotion regulation. Participants indicated the extent to which they engaged
in nine forms of emotion regulation over the previous two weeks using a 7-point
Likert scale (1 = not at all, 7 = a great deal). Items were carefully chosen to
represent five theoretically defined points in the emotion generative process that
are particularly important to emotion regulation: situation selection, situation
modification, attentional deployment (rumination and distraction), cognitive
change (reappraisal and talking to others), and response modulation (suppression,
masking, and self-soothing) (Gross, 1998). For each of these eight regulation
strategies, participants rated separately the degree to which they had used this
strategy to regulate positive and negative emotions. Items were summed to
EMOTION DIFFERENTIATIO N AND REGULATION 717
compute one two-week experience regulation index for positive emotion and one
for negative emotion. Both scales were internally consistent, afor positive
regulation strategies = .78, p<.01; afor negative regulation strategies = .80,
p<.01. The two indices were moderately correlated, r= .41, p<.01, but as
expected, participants reported regulating their negative emotions more than their
positive emotions, M= 22.08 versus M= 16.17, t(51) = 9.18, p<.01.
Participants attended three laboratory sessions. During the first session, parti-
cipants were introduced to the study as an investigation of how college students
think and feel about their daily life experiences. Participants completed a series
of questionnaire measures during the first session. Next, participants were asked
to keep a detailed record of their most intense emotional experience for a 14-day
period. Participants were given detailed procedures for completing the diaries,
and all items on the diary form were carefully defined. In addition to oral
instructions, participants received written instructions to which they could refer
during the course of the study. Participants took home a practice diary, along
with another set of questionnaire measures, including the regulation ques-
tionnaire. During the second laboratory session, participants returned their
completed questionnaires, and reviewed their practice diary with the experi-
menter. Participants were then given 14 days worth of diaries. They returned
their diaries three times during each recording week, and received extra lottery
tickets for returning their forms on time. Participants who did not return their
forms on time were telephoned within 24 hours and reminded to return the
forms. During the third laboratory session, the experimenter interviewed parti-
cipants about their reactions to the study. Participants indicated whether they
had completed any diaries from memory and, if they had, the percentage of
forms that they had completed from memory. The experimenter stressed that
participants would not be penalised in any way (i.e., they would still receive
credit and lottery tickets) if they had not followed instructions, and that we were
simply interested in obtaining an accurate picture of their data.
We hypothesised that emotion differentiation should be related to emotion
regulation, particularly for negative emotions, and for those who have a pro-
pensity to experience intense emotional states. To test this hypothesis, we
regressed the emotion regulation indices onto emotion differentiation, emotion
intensity, and their cross-product using ordinary least squares (OLS) multiple
regression procedures. One analysis was conducted using the negative emotion
indices (negative emotion differentiation and regulation), and one used the
positive emotion indices (positive emotion differentiation and regulation). All
predictor variables were centred (Aiken & West, 1991).
718 FELDMAN BAR RETT ET AL.
Negative emotion differentiation
As predicted, individuals with more highly differentiated and more intense
negative emotional experience reported greater emotion regulation. The nega-
tive differentiation—intensity cross-product term was significantly related to the
negative regulation strategy index, b=¡8.47, B=¡.34, t= 2.34, p<.02,
indicating that greater negative emotion differentiation was associated with
greater emotion regulation, especially as emotion intensity increased. This
means that individuals who had smaller correlations among negative emotional
states, indicating more differentiation, reported more frequent regulation of
negative emotions using a range of strategies. This was particularly true for
individuals who both differentiated among emotions and experienced relatively
In addition, the negative emotion differentiation term was significantly
related to the negative regulation index, b=¡5.90, B=¡.40, t= 2.75, p<.01.
In regression equations with interaction terms in which the predictor variables
have been centred, the lower order regression coefficients are not main effects,
but instead represent the effect of the predictor on the criterion at the mean of the
other predictor variable. Thus, those individuals at an average level of emotional
intensity and who had smaller correlations among negative states, indicating
more differentiation, also reported more frequent negative emotion regulation
using a range of strategies than did those with larger correlations between
negative emotional states. The emotional intensity term was significantly related
to the negative regulation index (b= 2.76, B= .31, t= 1.96, p<.05), indicating
that individuals at an average level of negative differentiation and who evi-
denced intense emotional states reported more frequent negative emotion
regulation than did those with less intense emotional states.
The relations among negative differentiation, intensity, and emotion regula-
tion are graphically presented in Figure 1. Figure 1 shows the simple regression
lines for the association between negative emotion differentiation and emotion
regulation at one standard deviation below, at the mean, and one standard
deviation above the mean of intensity (Aiken & West, 1991). As predicted, those
low in granularity (with large correlations between ratings of negative emotional
states) did not differ in their regulation by intensity. Those high in differentiation
(with small correlations between negative emotional states) reported increased
emotion regulation as the intensity of their experience increased.
Positive emotion differentiation
As predicted, positive emotion differentiation was unrelated to emotion regu-
lation. Neither positive emotion differentiation, nor the intensity-differentiation
cross-product were significantly related to the positive emotion regulation
strategy index (b=¡2.63, B=¡.19, t= 1.34, p<.19, and b= 2.89, B= .12, t=
EMOTION DIFFERENTIATIO N AND REGULATION 719
0.80, p<.43, respectively). Emotional intensity was significantly related to the
regulation strategy index for individuals who evidenced an average level of
positive emotion differentiation (b= 3.67, B= .39, t= 2.60, p<.01), indicating
that individuals characterised by intense emotional experience reported using a
greater number of emotion regulation strategies.
Although it has been argued previously that awareness of affective experience is
likely related to emotion regulation and self-regulation in general (Swinkels &
Giuliano, 1995), the present study provides the first empirical evidence, to our
knowledge, that characteristics of represented emotional experience is related to
emotion regulation. As predicted, individual differences in the propensity to label
negative emotional experiences in a discrete and granular fashion were associated
with increased negative emotion regulation by using a range of strategies, par-
ticularly for those individuals who experience their emotion at greater intensity.
Positive emotion differentiation was not related to any of the regulation variables.
This study is important on several counts. First, it replicates previous studies
indicating there is great variability in the representation of emotional experiences
as discrete (Feldman, 1995; Feldman Barrett, 1998) and verifies that this variation
is related to other aspects of emotion life. Second, it indicates that emotion
Figure 1. Simple Regression Lines for the Association Between Negative Emotion Differentiation
and Emotion Regulation at Different Levels of Emotional Intensity. Negative emotion differentiation
is indexed as one standard deviation below the mean (high differentiation), at the mean (averag e
differentiation), and one standard deviation above t he mean (low differentiation), of the average
correlation between negativ e emotion ratings.
720 FELDMAN BAR RETT ET AL.
regulation must be considered separately for positive and negative emotion. This
is likely because negative emotions are more heavily regulated in our current
cultural context. Global measures of emotion regulation (i.e., a strategy index that
did not separate positive and negative emotion, as well as broad statements about
emotion regulation more generally) were not related to emotional differentiation
in the present study. By extrapolation, it would be interesting to see whether
emotional differentiation is more strongly related to those specific negative
emotions that are more highly regulated (e.g., anger) when compared to those
negative emotions that are not modified as frequently (e.g., sadness).
These findings are consistent with two broad perspectives in the emotion
literature. First, they are consistent with an affect-as-information perspective.
According to that perspective, specific emotional states have more adaptive
value than global affective states, in part, because experiences of specific, dif-
ferentiated emotional states are less subject to misattribution errors (Clore &
Parrott, 1991; Keltner, Locke, & Audrain, 1993; Schwarz, 1990; Schwarz &
Clore, 1996). One of the principal distinguishing features of a discrete emotional
state, in comparison to a globa l affective state, is that emotions are typically
associated with a causal object, whereas global affect ive states are not (affect is,
of course, caused, but an object is not attributed to the feeling state; Russell &
Feldman Barrett, 1999). Identification of the source of an emotional state has
important consequences (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993; Johnson,
Nolde, & De Leonardis, 1996). This study has reinforced this claim by showing
that emotion differentiation is correlated with emotion regulation.
Second, our findings are consistent with an emotional intelligence perspective.
Emotional intelligence is broadly defined as the ability to perceive emotions in
self and other, to reflectively regulate emotions, and to access and generate
emotional experiences to inform adaptation (Salovey & Mayer, 1990; Salovey &
Sluyter, 1997). Recently, the concept of emotional intelligence has come under
scrutiny, with some researchers claiming that the construct does not have validity
(Davies, Stankov, & Roberts, 1998). Taken together, however, emotion differ-
entiation and the aspects of emotion regulation assessed in the present study seem
to comprise two important components of the emotional intelligence concept, and
in the process support its validity (Feldman Barrett & Gross, 2000). Those
individuals with the ability to distinguish among negative emotional states and
subsequently regulate their emotions may prove more ‘‘emotionally intelligent’’
than those who have less differentiated emotion representations.
One important caveat is that the analyses presented in this study were correla-
tional, and therefore no causal connection between emotion differentiation and
emotion regulation can be assumed. The findings are certainly consistent with
the hypothesis that emotion differentiation sets the stage for emotion regulation,
EMOTION DIFFERENTIATIO N AND REGULATION 721
but they do not conclusively demonstrate this. It is also possible that more
frequent emotion regulation allows for finer grained differentiation. Indeed,
participants reported emotional experiences in their daily diaries that could have
been the result of, rather than the input to, regulatory attempts. Individuals who
are well-practised at emotion regulation may experience the automatic activa-
tion of a rich network of semantic and affective representations (comprised of
both linguistic labels and organised personal experiences) that are easily
accessible due to repeated use. Such individuals may be able to easily represent
their emotional experience in a finely differentiated way without effort or intent.
Future dire ctions
These findings suggest a number of interesting next steps. First, it will be
important to replicate the differentiation-regulation relationship both with a
broader range of participants (other than healthy college students) and using
experimental methodology (by manipulating emotion differentiation and
examining the impact of such manipulations on emotion regulation ease and
success). Second, it would be important to determine whether emotion differ-
entiation is related to regulation efficacy (i.e., to more adaptive use of regulation
strategies). Our focus in this report was on emotion regulation frequency , but in
future studies, it will be important to assess whether emotion differentiation is
reliably associated with the use of particular emotion regulation strategies.
Third, it would be important to consider whether the differentiation-regulation
link occurs only for consciously mediated states, or whether it also exists for
automatically generated and regulated states. Finally, it would be important to
develop and extend this view to develop a broader conceptualisation of the
processes that link emotional differentiation to emotion regulation. The current
findings are consistent with the view that both emotion differentiation and
emotion regulation are influenced by a combination of accessible emotion
knowledge (as evidenced by differentiation in conscious emotional experience)
and the motivation to use that knowledge (as evidenced by the propensity to
experience intense emotional states). The differentiation-regulation link also
may be due to underlying differences in the availability of complex emotion
knowledge, as well as the cognitive resources to use the knowledge in any given
instance (Feldman Barrett & Gross, 2000).
Manuscript received 25 January 2000
Revised manuscript received 2 April 2001
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