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Can expressive writing change emotions? An oblique answer to the wrong question.



It seems like such a simple question. There is good evidence that expressive writing methods bring about relatively long-term changes to physical health, mental health, and, yes, emotions. Unfortunately, the question implies that we know what we are talking about when we use the term “emotion.” The purpose of this paper is to challenge the ways scientists think about emotion by drawing on recent findings in neuroscience, language, and expressive writing.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Ferrell, J. D. (2013). Can expressive writing change emotions? An
oblique answer to the wrong question. In D. Hermans, B. Rimé, & B. Mesquita (Eds.),
Changing Emotions (pp. 183-186). New York, NY: Psychology Press.!
25 Can expressive writing change
emotions? An oblique answer to the
wrong question
James W. Pennebaker and Jason D. Ferrell
University of Texas at Austin
It seems like such a simple question. There is good evidence that expressive
writing methods bring about relatively long-term changes to physical health,
mental health, and, yes, emotions. Unfortunately, the question implies that we
know what we are talking about when we use the term “emotion.” The purpose
of this paper is to challenge the ways scientists think about emotion by drawing
on recent ndings in neuroscience, language, and expressive writing.
The problem of emotion and emotion regulation
Emotions do not stand alone. Charles Darwin, William James, Walter Cannon,
Stanley Schachter, and most modern neuroscientists have acknowledged that
emotions are connected to eliciting events. More recent models emphasize that
the perceptions of eliciting events involve the fusing of cognitive and emotional
systems in ways that cannot be separated (Scherer, 2009). Striking examples
have been reported by Antonio Damasio (1994) wherein patients with temporary
frontal lobe damage lost the ability to experience emotion. While playing a
laboratory-based poker game, the emotion loss actually hampered the ability
to play effectively. Although a logical game, Damasio demonstrated that logic
requires emotional responses to judge a risky versus a safe bet.
Emotions and cognitions are ultimately all part of the same neural system. This
is apparent in our research with people who have endured a traumatic or other
upsetting experience. In the months after losing a spouse or being red from a
job, people continue to obsess about their experience while feeling the emotional
reactions when the thoughts recur. In short, emotional states continue over time
by merely thinking about them.
If a man is still angry about losing his job six months afterwards, can we “x”
the problem by training him to regulate his emotions? If he reports feeling angry
much of the time, should we be initiating therapy, giving drugs, or encouraging
psychosurgery to reduce the anger? If emotions and the cognitive representations
of an experience are a single system, such a strategy makes no sense. To regulate
emotions, we also need to regulate the experience. That is, if we are seeking
long-term change in emotions, we must regulate the whole system.
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184 James W. Pennebaker and Jason D. Ferrell
Expressive writing, emotions, and thoughts
The inherent connection between thoughts and emotions is apparent in work
that has been done using expressive writing. In the typical study, participants
are randomly assigned to write about a traumatic experience or a non-emotional
control topic for three or four sessions, each lasting 15–30 minutes (Frattaroli,
2006; Pennebaker and Chung, 2011). Those assigned to the trauma condition are
asked to explore their deepest thoughts and emotions about the most upsetting
experience in their lives on each day of writing. Control participants are generally
asked to describe non-emotional objects or events such as a tree or how they have
used their time in the last 24 hours.
On the surface, the expressive writing paradigm sounds innocuous. In fact,
participants in the trauma condition usually write intensely personal and powerful
narratives. After each day’s writing, participants usually report feeling emotionally
drained, sad, and sometimes angry. In post-writing interviews, many tell us that
between the writing sessions they tend to think about, and even dream about, their
writing topics.
The success of the expressive writing paradigm has been in its ability to
inuence people’s physical and mental health. Since the publication of the rst
study in 1986, over 200 articles have been published using the expressive writing
paradigm. Those assigned to the trauma conditions typically evidence better
physical health in the weeks and months after writing, as measured by visits
to physicians, markers of immune function, days absent from work, and other
behavioral and biological measures. The writing paradigm produces consistent
but very modest effects in objective health outcomes over several months.
Meta-analyses report that the effect sizes for behavioral, biological, physical, and
psychological outcomes average d = 0.15 (e.g., Frattaroli, 2006).
Expressive writing produces long-term improvements in emotional states as
well. People assigned to expressive writing conditions have more positive moods
than those assigned to write about non-emotional topics 2–3 months following
writing sessions. People who write expressively have reduced depressive symptoms
compared to participants who write non-emotionally one month following
expressive writing sessions (Sloan and Marx, 2004). Indeed, replication of the
expressive writing paradigm in randomized experimental studies provides evidence
of long-term improvements in emotions in people that write expressively compared
to people who don’t (for meta-analyses, see Frattaroli, 2006; Smyth, 1998).
Expressive writing can change both emotions and physical health over several
weeks and months. But what are the active mechanisms? A large number of
experiments have attempted to answer this question over the last two decades.
Sadly, the answer is not straightforward. Rather, there appears to be a cascade of
inter-related effects. Here is a brief summary of what we currently know:
For expressive writing to work, people must write about both their thoughts
and feelings about an upsetting experience. Writing just about the events or
just about their emotions is not sufcient to bring about change.
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Can expressive writing change emotions? 185
Expressive writing must involve the building of a narrative that allows the
authors to stand back and adopt a broad perspective (e.g., Smyth, True, and
Souto, 2001).
Expressive writing allows people to move through the traumatic experience
in a way where they don’t think about it as much. Various studies indicate
that people subsequently have better working memory (e.g., Klein and Boals,
2001) which may partially explain why they later perform better at school
(e.g., Lumley and Provenzano, 2003).
Expressive writing brings about subtle but measurable changes in the
ways people socialize with others. In the months after writing, they tend to
talk with others more, laugh more, and are more socially engaged (e.g., Kim,
Expressive writing as a way of reconstructing an emotional event
In reading people’s emotional essays, very rarely do people ever talk in great
depth about their emotional states. Rather, they write about the emotional event
itself and how it affected their lives and the people around them. Their stories
reveal personal struggles about how they have tried to make sense of the event.
Yes, they often mention the emotions that have come from living through their
upheavals, but the emotions themselves are generally not the problem. The
problem has been the events and their memories.
In the months after participating in our studies, we have often asked people to
describe how the writing studies affected them. The reports are overwhelmingly
positive. Interestingly, the most common responses are cognitive. Examples
include: “It helped me think about what I felt during those times. I never realized
how it affected me before” or “I was able to put things together in ways I couldn’t
do back then.”
When people write, they are rethinking the event itself. As a number of
our computer-based language analyses have demonstrated, those people who
construct or reconstruct what happened are the ones who benet the most
from writing (e.g., Pennebaker, 2011). For the expressive writer, perception
of the emotional event changes during the cognitive process of rethinking and
reconstructing. The intimate links among perception, sensation, and cognition
presupposes that any change changes the whole system. If cognitions and percep-
tions change, the sensations, emotions, and feelings associated with the event also
In answer to the title of this paper, yes, expressive writing can change emotions.
But ultimately, the question exposes a misguided view of emotion. Expressive
writing changes the event itself—the way it is thought about, the way it is
organized, and even the way it is remembered. As the event is reshaped in the
person’s mind, the corresponding emotions have to change as well.
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186 James W. Pennebaker and Jason D. Ferrell
Can expressive writing change emotions? The more appropriate question is:
can expressive writing change the memory of traumatic experiences? We think
that future research will provide an unequivocal answer in the afrmative.
Preparation of this manuscript was aided by funding from the Army Research
Institute (W91 WAW-07-C-0029) and the National Science Foundation
Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New
York: G. P. Putnam.
Frattaroli. J. (2006). “Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis”.
Psychological Bulletin, 132, 823–65.
Kim, Y. (2008). “Effects of expressive writing among bilinguals: Exploring psychological
well-being and social behaviour”. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 43–7.
Klein, K., and Boals, A. (2001). “Expressive writing can increase working memory
capacity”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 520–33.
Lumley, M. A., and Provenzano, K. M. (2003). “Stress management through written
emotional disclosure improves academic performance among college students with
physical symptoms”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 641–9.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: How our words reveal who we are.
New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Pennebaker, J. W., and Chung, C. K. (2011). “Expressive writing: Connections to mental
and physical health”. In H. S. Friedman (ed.), Oxford handbook of health psychology.
New York, Oxford University Press.
Scherer, K. R. (2009). “The dynamic architecture of emotion: Evidence for the component
process model”. Cognition and Emotion, 23, 1307–51.
Sloan, D. M., and Marx, B. P. (2004). “A closer examination of the structured written
disclosure procedure”. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 72, 165–75.
Smyth, J. M. (1998). “Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and
moderating variables”. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 174–84.
Smyth, J. M., True, N., and Souto, J. (2001). “Effects of writing about traumatic
experiences: The necessity for narrative structuring”. Journal of Social and Clinical
Psychology, 20, 161–72.
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... For instance, boys might be encouraged to tell stories in the third person about their experiences with bullying. Using this writing method may help boys process their emotions in a non-confrontational way (see Pennebaker & Ferrel, 2013). ...
... Moreover, Graneist and Habermas note that one aspect of narration that is important for managing emotions entails harnessing the perspectives of othershypothetical or real. These papers add to a growing literature linking narrative and emotion in various ways (Fioretti et al. 2017;Kross and Ayduk 2008;Pasupathi et al. 2017;Pennebaker and Ferrell 2013). ...
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This commentary reflects on papers assembled for a special issue about the impact of Bruner’s idea of “beyond the information given.” The assembled papers are examined in relation to three cross-cutting issues that they illustrate: 1) processes of reflection in autobiographical recollection; 2) links between meaning and emotion; and 3) the idea of going beyond the individual mind as well as beyond the given information.
... Moreover, future studies could take an even more fine-grained approach to understanding the active ingredients of these interventions. For example, measurement of online social interactions could shed light on the question of whether the impact of the standard expressive writing intervention relies on increased discussion of stressful life experience with other people (see Pennebaker & Ferrell, 2013). ...
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Although much research considers how individuals manage their own emotions, less is known about the emotional benefits of regulating the emotions of others. We examined this topic in a 3-week study of an online platform providing training and practice in the social regulation of emotion. We found that participants who engaged more by helping others (vs. sharing and receiving support for their own problems) showed greater decreases in depression, mediated by increased use of reappraisal in daily life. Moreover, social regulation messages with more other-focused language (i.e., second-person pronouns) were (a) more likely to elicit expressions of gratitude from recipients and (b) predictive of increased use of reappraisal over time for message composers, suggesting perspective-taking enhances the benefits of practicing social regulation. These findings unpack potential mechanisms of socially oriented training in emotion regulation and suggest that by helping others regulate, we may enhance our own regulatory skills and emotional well-being.
... Other approaches to measuring EI as an ability include several language-based tests which assess the person's ability to use complex emotion language or their ability to integrate emotional information into reasoning (see Matthews et al., 2002). Computer analysis of emotional language use may be especially relevant to health; there is consistent evidence that expressive emotional writing, for example about traumatic events, produces lasting benefits to both mental and physical health (Pennebaker and Ferrell, 2013). Another objective approach is the use of Situation Judgment Tests (SJTs), which require the person to choose between response alternatives to emotional scenarios, using either text or multimedia materials (MacCann, Lievens, Libbrecht, and Roberts, 2015). ...
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Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to a set of competencies for understanding and managing emotions and emotional encounters. It is an elusive construct that has inspired a variety of conceptualizations and measurement strategies. Current perspectives divide into those that define EI as an ability akin to conventional intelligence, and those that assign it to the personality sphere. There are several reasons why EI might relate to mental and physical health. Superior emotion-regulation and coping abilities may promote a range of personal benefits, especially in buffering the adverse health impacts of stressors. EI is also associated with social engagement, which promotes better health. This article briefly reviews empirical studies of EI and health outcomes in nonclinical and clinical samples and identifies methodological challenges for this research area. EI is consistently associated with better outcomes, especially for mental health, but underlying mechanisms are uncertain. The chapter concludes with implications for practitioners in health psychology.
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The effect of emotional disclosure through expressive writing on available working memory (WM) capacity was examined in 2 semester-long experiments. In the first study, 35 freshmen assigned to write about their thoughts and feelings about coming to college demonstrated larger working memory gains 7 weeks later compared with 36 writers assigned to a trivial topic. Increased use of cause and insight words was associated with greater WM improvements. In the second study, students (n = 34) who wrote about a negative personal experience enjoyed greater WM improvements and declines in intrusive thinking compared with students who wrote about a positive experience (n = 33) or a trivial topic (n = 34). The results are discussed in terms of a model grounded in cognitive and social psychological theory in which expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thinking about a stressful experience, thus freeing WM resources.
This paper presents a broad overview of the expressive writing paradigm. Since its first use in the 1980s, dozens of studies have explored the parameters and boundary conditions of its effectiveness. In the laboratory, consistent and significant health improvements are found when individuals write or talk about personally upsetting experiences. The effects include both subjective and objective markers of health and well-being. The disclosure phenomenon appears to generalize across settings, many individual difference factors, and several Western cultures, and is independent of social feedback.
The smallest words in our vocabulary often reveal the most about us, says James W. Pennebaker, including our levels of honesty and thinking style
Although writing about traumatic events has been shown to produce a variety of health benefits, little is known about how writing produces benefits. The degree to which individuals form narrative structure when writing may predict health improvements. This study manipulated narrative formation during writing to test if narrative structure is necessary for writing to be beneficial. A total of 116 healthy students were randomly assigned to write about control topics or about their thoughts and feelings regarding the most traumatic event of their life in one of two ways: list in an fragmented format or construct a narrative. Individuals asked to form a narrative reported less restriction of activity because of illness and showed higher avoidant thinking than the other groups. The fragmented writing group did not differ from controls on any measure. These data (a) demonstrate that instructions to form a narrative produce a different response to writing than instructions to form fragmented and control writing and (b) suggest narrative formation may be required to achieve health benefits.
This study tested whether writing about stressful events improves grade point averages (GPAs) and whether decreases in writing-induced negative mood from the first to last day of writing predicts GPA improvements. College students (n=74) reporting elevated physical symptoms were randomized to write for 4 days about either stressful experiences (disclosure group) or time management (control group). Students rated their mood before and after writing each day, and transcripts provided GPAs for the baseline and subsequent semesters. Compared with the control condition, disclosure led to significantly better GPAs the next semester. Among disclosure students, but not control students, improved mood from the first to last writing days predicted improved GPA. Writing about general life stress leads to improved academic functioning, particularly among those who become less distressed over writing days. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Emotion is conceptualised as an emergent, dynamic process based on an individual's subjective appraisal of significant events. It is argued that theoretical models of emotion need to propose an architecture that reflects the essential nature and functions of emotion as a psychobiological and cultural adaptation mechanism. One proposal for such a model and its underlying dynamic architecture, the component process model, is briefly sketched and compared with some of its major competitors. Recent empirical evidence in support of the model is reviewed. Special emphasis is given to the dynamic aspect of emotion processes, in particular the sequence of appraisal checks and the synchronisation of response systems, as well as the capacity of the model to predict individual differences in emotional responding. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved) (journal abstract)
A research synthesis was conducted to examine the relationship between a written emotional expression task and subsequent health. This writing task was found to lead to significantly improved health outcomes in healthy participants. Health was enhanced in 4 outcome types--reported physical health, psychological well-being, physiological functioning, and general functioning--but health behaviors were not influenced. Writing also increased immediate (pre- to postwriting) distress, which was unrelated to health outcomes. The relation between written emotional expression and health was moderated by a number of variables, including the use of college students as participants, gender, duration of the manipulation, publication status of the study, and specific writing content instructions.
The current study examined psychological and physical health outcomes of the written disclosure paradigm and the hypothesis that the principles of therapeutic exposure account for the beneficial effects of the paradigm. Participants were randomly assigned to either a written disclosure condition or a control condition. Reactivity to the writing sessions was examined using both subjective and physiological measures. Measures of psychological and physical health were completed before and 1 month after the sessions. Participants assigned to the disclosure condition reported fewer psychological and physical symptoms at follow-up compared with control participants, though reductions were clinically significant for only 1 outcome measure. Physiological activation to the 1st disclosure session was associated with reduced psychological symptoms at follow-up for disclosure participants. Subjective reports of emotional responding corresponded with physiological reactivity. Implications of these findings are discussed.
Disclosing information, thoughts, and feelings about personal and meaningful topics (experimental disclosure) is purported to have various health and psychological consequences (e.g., J. W. Pennebaker, 1993). Although the results of 2 small meta-analyses (P. G. Frisina, J. C. Borod, & S. J. Lepore, 2004; J. M. Smyth, 1998) suggest that experimental disclosure has a positive and significant effect, both used a fixed effects approach, limiting generalizability. Also, a plethora of studies on experimental disclosure have been completed that were not included in the previous analyses. One hundred forty-six randomized studies of experimental disclosure were collected and included in the present meta-analysis. Results of random effects analyses indicate that experimental disclosure is effective, with a positive and significant average r-effect size of .075. In addition, a number of moderators were identified.