The Social Regulation of Emotion

In conjunction with Jim Coan I have been working to develop and elaborate on “social baseline theory” (Beckes & Coan, 2011; Beckes & Coan, 2012), which posits that social proximity conserves vital resources through the social regulation of emotion. The theory argues that social proximity is a baseline condition for the human species and the human brain assumes the presence of other people. When that assumption is violated it should serve as an unconditional threat to the individual, increasing the predicted and actual costs of engaging in action in the environment. Thus, aloneness requires more effort on the part of the individual. This is in part because individuals must expend more energy on self-regulation using prefrontal regions of the brain routing needed energy from other systems. The emphases on energy dynamics and neurobiology are distinct approaches of social baseline theory, allowing for novel predictions not easily derived from similar and overlapping theories such as attachment theory.

Our recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) work indicates that social emotion regulation extends beyond traditional attachment relationships. Using a handholding paradigm in which participants face the threat of shock either alone, or when holding another person’s hand (e.g., a stranger or friend) we have found significantly decreased threat response in the “neural threat matrix” (e.g., insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, sub-cortical affective regions) when people hold hands with friends (Coan, Beckes, & Allen, in press). Further, the degree to which they benefit from hand-holding is related not only to maternal support eight years prior, but also to neighborhood quality up to twelve years prior to scanning. It is the certainty with which one has come to expect support from others  which appears to be the key principle in fostering the ability and tendency to depend on others for support, a hypothesis confirmed in several studies (e.g., Coan, Tatum, Thrasher, & Beckes, in preparation; Johnson, Coan, Moser, Beckes, Smith, Dagleish, Halchuck, Hasselmo, & Merali, manuscript submitted for publication).

In our current and future projects we are developing interventions that improve the social regulation of emotion in couples (e.g., Johnson, et al., manuscript submitted for publication), and honing in on the neurobiological mechanisms of the social regulation of emotion. It has long been suspected by many in neuroscience that social contact benefits emotion regulation via the stimulation of self-regulation circuits in the brain localized in the dorso-lateral and ventro-medial prefrontal cortex. Our research never finds such effects and suggests distinct neural processes related to the self vs. the social regulation of emotion (Beckes, Coan, Allen, & Riem, in preparation).