Name that Emotion! Words Help Lessen Impact of Negative Events


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Participants rated their fear during the study: Photo by giarose

Measuring Fear: Skin Conductance and Self-reporting

Researchers used two measures to determine levels of fear.

One, skin conductance response, described by MIT as “the phenomenon that the skin momentarily becomes a better conductor of electricity when either external or internal stimuli occur that are physiologically arousing” provided a objective numeric value.

Additionally, participant self-reported their levels of fear on a scale of zero to 100, from “no fear” to “extreme fear.”

The Effect of Affect Labeling

Of the three verbal interventions, the affect labeling group – the group that verbalized their fear – showed the greatest reduction in skin conductance response (SCR), which is an objective measure of emotional arousal.  Surprisingly, despite the reduction in physiological response, “affect labeling was not shown to be more effective than the other conditions in reducing reported fear.”  In the article, the author states that it may be because individuals don’t expect to feel less fear from labeling a negative emotion.

In the interview with Decoded Science, Kircanski  continued, “the different channels of fear responding – physiological responses,  behavior, and self-reports – don’t always correlate or  respond to  exposure at the same rates. Studying the effects of affect  labeling  over a longer time period would help to examine this  possibility.”

Implications of the Study

In our interview, Dr. Kircanski noted that earlier research has demonstrated “that children’s ability to label  their emotions is associated with, and can also predict, future  social skills.”  She goes on to say that, “it would be very interesting to examine whether systematically training children in affect labeling can have beneficial effects on their emotional and social functioning.”  Research, she reports, is underway to determine if individuals  who have undergone traumatic experiences can be helped by affect labeling.

Maybe all of us would benefit from reflective labeling of our own emotional states.  Admitting when we are experiencing fear, discomfort, or sadness might just make us feel better.


Kircanski, K. et. al. Feelings Into Words : Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy. (2012). Association for Psychological Science, Sage Publications.  Accessed August 30, 2012.

Lieberman, M. D. et al. Putting Feelings into Words:Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity to Affective Stimuli. (2007). Psychological Science, 18, 421-428. Accessed August 30, 2012.

MIT. What is the Skin Conductance Reponse? (2012). Accessed August 30, 2012.

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