A linguistic signature of psychological distancing in emotion regulation

Erik C. Nook, Jessica L. Schleider, Leah H. Somerville

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


Effective emotion regulation is critical for mental health and well-being, rendering insight into underlying mechanisms that facilitate this crucial skill invaluable. We combined principles of cognitive linguistics and basic affective science to test whether shifting components of one's language might foster effective emotion regulation. In particular, we explored bidirectional relations between emotion regulation and linguistic signatures of psychological distancing. In Study 1, we assessed whether people spontaneously distance their language (i.e., shift their word use to be less socially and temporally proximate) when regulating emotions. Participants transcribed their thoughts while either passively viewing or actively regulating their emotional responses to negative images. Regulation increased linguistic markers of social and temporal distance, and participants who showed greater linguistic distancing were more successful regulators. Study 2 reversed this relation and investigated whether distancing one's language spontaneously regulated one's emotions. Participants wrote about negative images either using psychologically "close" or "distant" language in physical, social, and temporal domains. All 3 domains of linguistic distancing spontaneously reduced negative affect. Distancing language also "bled" across domains (e.g., temporal distancing spontaneously produced social distancing). This suggests that distancing one's language in 1 domain (e.g., reducing use of present-tense verbs) produces shifts in deep representations of psychological distance that are measurable across domains (e.g., reduced use of the word "I"). Results extend understanding of language-emotion interactions and reveal novel strategies for reducing negative affect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)337-346
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • General Psychology


  • Emotion
  • Emotion regulation
  • Language
  • Psychological distance


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