Unpacking emotion: Differentiation transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10-16. 

Current Directions in Psychological
2015, Vol. 24(1) 10 –16
© The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0963721414550708

As the planes hit the first of the Twin Towers on September
11, 2001, reporters canvassed the streets, stopping run-
ning locals to ask them what they were feeling (see
Barrett, 2006b, p. 25). On that horrific day, two people
responded very differently:

My first reaction was terrible sadness. . . . But the
second reaction was that of anger, because you
can’t do anything with the sadness.

I felt a bunch of things I couldn’t put my finger on.
Maybe anger, confusion, fear. I just felt bad on
September 11th. Really bad.

With impressive detail, the first person described a
series of specific emotional experiences associated with
a desire to act. The second person, by contrast, struggled
to represent her feelings in specific terms and in the end
was left with a general feeling of unpleasantness.

These two examples are typical of how people put
their feelings into words. Theorists have proposed that

people with the skill to verbally characterize their emo-
tional experiences with granularity and detail are less
likely to be overwhelmed in stressful situations (Lane &
Schwartz, 1987; Lindquist & Barrett, 2008). This sequence
of events, starting with the onsets of intense, distressing
feelings, is represented in Figure 1. First, the act of using
emotion-word labels to differentiate what is felt in a given
moment conveys information about the situation and
possible courses of action (Barrett, 2006b, 2012). Second,
labeled emotions in turn become easier to regulate, and
they either become irrelevant or facilitate a person’s per-
sonal strivings (as in the case of, e.g., anger increasing
someone’s dominant stance during a confrontational
negotiation; Tamir, 2009). Third, with a healthy manage-
ment of emotions, a person is better able to pursue per-
sonal striving beyond the alteration or control of private

550708CDPXXX10.1177/0963721414550708Kashdan et al.Transforming Unpleasant Experience

Corresponding Author:
Todd B. Kashdan, Department of Psychology, MS 3F5, George Mason
University, Fairfax, VA 22030
E-mail: tkashdan@gmu.edu

Unpacking Emotion Differentiation:
Transforming Unpleasant Experience by
Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity

Todd B. Kashdan1, Lisa Feldman Barrett2, and
Patrick E. McKnight1
1George Mason University and 2Northeastern University

Being able to carefully perceive and distinguish the rich complexity in emotional experiences is a key component
of psychological interventions. We review research in clinical, social, and health psychology that offers insights into
the adaptive value of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity (i.e., emotion differentiation or
emotional granularity). According to recent research, upon experiencing intense distress,

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