Interpersonal Emotion Regulation: Insights From the Virtual Reality Field

Interpersonal Emotion Regulation: Insights From the Virtual Reality Field

Desiree Colombo (Instituto Polibienestar, University of Valencia, Spain), Sara Ventura (Università di Bologna, Italy), and Rosa M. Baños (CiberObn Pathophysiology of Obesity and Nutrition (CB06/03), Instituto Salud Carlos III, Madrid, Spain)
Copyright: © 2022 |Pages: 30
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-6684-2478-0.ch010
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For many years, emotion regulation has been regarded as an intrapersonal process. Nonetheless, a growing body of evidence has outlined the importance of the social context in which the emotions are regulated, giving rise to the concept of interpersonal emotion regulation (IER). In line with the studies supporting the role of contextual and momentary factors in shaping emotions and their regulation, virtual reality (VR) has recently emerged as a powerful tool for a more ecological exploration and improvement of the mechanisms underlying IER. In the chapter, the authors provide an overview of the evidence coming from the VR-based literature, with a specific focus on the use of this approach to the understanding and enhancement of empathy, prosocial behaviors, and social abilities. A final discussion will be provided to highlight current limitations and future innovative lines of research integrating VR into this field of research.
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Emotion Regulation and its Interpersonal Dimension

In the last decades, emotion regulation (ER) has been one of the most studied constructs in the field of clinical psychology (Fernández-Álvarez et al., 2018). ER refers to the deployment of strategies to implicitly or explicitly modify an ongoing positive or negative emotion, with the aim of producing an adaptive emotional response and reach desirable goals (Gross, 1998; Quoidbach et al., 2015). According to the process model pioneered by Gross (1998), ER may be applied before (i.e., antecedent-focused strategies) or after (i.e., response-focused strategies) the generation of an emotion. Furthermore, regulation strategies might differ in nature, involving situational, attentional, cognitive or behavioral mechanisms (Gross, 2015). Regardless to the type of strategy, the general goal is to downregulate negative emotional states and upregulate positive ones. Throughout the last two decades, a vast array of researchers has attempted to study the multifaceted complexity of this process and complementary theoretical perspectives have started to emerge. Among others, the incorporation of the interpersonal dimension has represented an important turning point for the understanding of this construct (Zaki, 2020; Zaki & Williams, 2013).

As a matter of fact, the first formal definition mainly regarded ER as an intrapersonal process, assuming that people only regulate emotions in solitude. However, there is now evidence to suggest that people also regulate emotions at an interpersonal level: For instance, by seeking social support or sharing personal experiences in order to recognize, understand, and manage emotional states. According to Zaki’s theoretical framework (2013), interpersonal emotion regulation (IER) refers to the deployment of strategies in a live social context with the explicit aim of regulating one’s own emotions as well as others’ affective states. In this definition, the authors also include “interpersonal modulation” processes: That is, the unintentional modulation of affect through the presence and support of others (Uchino & Garvey, 1997), which might be understood as the consequence of an intentional attempt to seek out social contact (i.e., situation selection). Together, this new theoretical framework has deeply questioned the traditional literature, opening new avenues for the understanding of how regulatory processes are deployed in a social context.

Adding to this complexity, momentary factors as well as the context in which the emotions are regulated have been shown to play a key role for ER. Even though traditionally conceptualized as a stable, cross-situational trait of an individual, there is now evidence indicating that ER should be considered as a context-dependent process affected by momentary variables (e.g., momentary mood) as well as situational factors (e.g., social context) (Aldao & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2012). So far, though, most of the literature has relied on the use of laboratory experiments as well as retrospective and trait questionnaires, which might have failed to capture the complex nature of ER processes, especially when implemented in a social context (Colombo et al., 2020). Accordingly, many researchers have claimed the importance of using more ecological methodologies to disentangle ER underpinnings (Colombo et al., 2019). In this direction, in the last decades virtual reality (VR) has been increasingly applied to uncover the interpersonal and social dynamics underlying this process (Colombo et al., 2021; Fernandez-Álvarez et al., 2020).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Interpersonal Emotion Regulation: The set of strategies deployed in a social context with the aim of regulating one’s own emotions and/or others’ affective states.

Embodiment: It refers to the sense of being inside, having and controlling a body. This sense is composed by (1) the feeling of self-identification (sense of body ownership), (2) the sense of provoking body actions (sense of agency), and (3) the feeling of experiencing a situation from the body’s position in space (sense of self-location).

Sense of Presence: The subjective feeling of actually “being” in a virtual environment and behave as if the simulated situation were real.

Social Skills: The set of abilities to successfully communicate, interact and build relationships with others.

Empathy: The ability to place oneself in another person’s perspective and understand his/her emotions and mental states.

Prosocial Behaviors: Behavior which are meant to bring benefits to someone (e.g., cooperating, donating, helping).

Virtual Reality: A technology which allows to place a user into a simulated 3-D environment as well as navigate and interact in real time.

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