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CPXXXX10.1177/2167702617694657Starr et al.Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms

Empirical Article

Clinical Psychological Science

When Feelings Lack Precision: 2017, Vol. 5(4) 613­–631

© The Author(s) 2017
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Low Positive and Negative Emotion
DOI: 10.1177/2167702617694657

Differentiation and Depressive

Symptoms in Daily Life

Lisa R. Starr1, Rachel Hershenberg2, Y. Irina Li1, and

Zoey A. Shaw1
University of Rochester and 2Emory University

Research suggests the ability to differentiate discrete emotions protects against psychopathology. Little is known
about daily processes through which negative and positive emotion differentiation (NED, PED) influence depressive
symptomatology. We examined NED and PED as moderators of associations between daily processes (negative/
positive experiences, brooding, and savoring) and daily depressive symptoms. Hypotheses were tested using intensive
longitudinal techniques in two samples oversampled for depression: 157 young adults (Study 1) and 50 veterans
recruited from VA primary care (Study 2). In Study 1, low NED predicted stronger associations between daily brooding
and depressive symptoms. In Study 2, low NED predicted stronger reactivity to daily negative events. In both studies,
low PED strengthened salutary effects of positive experiences and savoring on symptoms. Largely consistent across
demographically divergent samples, results suggest both low NED and PED enhance effects of daily events and
perseverative self-focus on fluctuations in depressive symptoms.

negative emotion differentiation, positive emotion differentiation, depression, brooding, savoring, ecological
momentary assessment, daily diary

Received 8/29/16; Revision accepted 1/26/17

Emotion differentiation (ED) refers to the ability to identify appropriate emotion regulation strategies (Barrett et  al.,
and precisely label discrete emotional states (Barrett, 2001). Supporting this theoretical model, ED is associated
Gross, Christensen, & Benvenuto, 2001; Kashdan, Barrett, with less impulsive emotional responding and more effec-
& McKnight, 2015). Those who are low on this ability tend tive use of emotion regulation strategies (Barrett et  al.,
to report their emotions in broad terms of valence (“I feel 2001; Kashdan et al., 2015; Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett,
good,” or “I feel upset”) rather than pinpointing concrete 2004).
emotions (“I feel excited,” or “I feel afraid”). Increasing Given that appropriately experiencing and flexibly
research suggests that ED has consequences for psychopa- expressing emotions is central to well-being and repre-
thology and well-being. Emotions communicate critical sents a transdiagnostic process in psychopathology
information about the need to employ attentional and (Kring & Sloan, 2011), it is not surprising that difficulty
behavioral resources. Thus, when people are better able to discriminating between concrete emotional states—that
discriminate between discrete emotional states they are
more prepared to extract relevant information about
the causes and consequences of their emotions, such as Corresponding Author:
Lisa R. Starr, Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology,
the eliciting context, cognitive and physiological corre- University of Rochester, 491 Meliora Hall, PO Box 270266, Rochester,
lates, and behavioral urges. This awareness also provides NY 14627-0266
information needed to effectively select and deploy E-mail:
614 Starr et al.

is, low ED—has been linked to critical processes and The limited previous research has assumed that, like
behaviors across a wide range of disorders, including low NED, low PED would confer risk for maladaptive out-
substance abuse, eating disorders, borderline personality comes (Dixon-Gordon et al., 2014; Hill & Updegraff, 2012;
disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and social anxiety Selby et al., 2014; Tugade et al., 2004). This assumption is
disorder (Dixon-Gordon, Chapman, Weiss, & Rosenthal, based on the logic that the ability to perceive emotions in
2014; Erbas, Ceulemans, Boonen, Noens, & Kuppens, 2013; a more sophisticated, granular manner is adaptive, regard-
Kashdan & Farmer, 2014; Kashdan, Ferssizidis, Collins, less of whether the emotions are positive (high PED) or
& Muraven, 2010; O’Toole, Jensen, Fentz, Zachariae, & negative (high NED). However, it is also possible that
Hougaard, 2014; Selby et al., 2014; Zaki, Coifman, Rafaeli, excessively differentiating between PE states may lead to
Berenson, & Downey, 2013). Some evidence also specifi- a more constrained, narrower experience of PEs. As a
cally links poor differentiation of negative emotions (NEs; result, high PED may make some behaviors and experi-
referred to as negative emotion differentiation; NED) to ences less emotionally rewarding. On the one hand, this
depression, including self-reported depressive symp- may reduce risk for maladaptive behaviors that are typi-
toms, major depressive disorder (MDD), and symptom cally reinforced by emotional rewards; supporting this
severity within depressive episodes (Demiralp et  al., notion, high PED has been associated with a reduced rate
2012; Erbas, Ceulemans, Lee Pe, Koval, & Kuppens, 2014; of self-destructive behaviors such as disordered eating
Golston, Gara, & Woolfolk, 1992). This growing body of and self-injurious behavior (Dixon-Gordon et  al., 2014;
work suggests that NED could be an important contribu- Selby et al., 2014). On the other hand, PED may also con-
tor to depression’s etiology and maintenance. However, strain the emotional benefits of adaptive experiences,
research on ED and depression remains limited, and no such as everyday uplifts and positive experiences. Nota-
research has teased apart specific daily processes through bly, a core feature of depression is the absence of PE and
which ED influences depressive symptoms. reactivity to rewarding experiences. Thus, high PED could
Most research on ED has focused on NED. A much contribute to anhedonia and depressive symptom risk by
smaller set of studies has explored positive emotion dif- reducing the antidepressant effects of positive activities.
ferentiation (PED), perhaps because the limited existing In the current research, we first focus on the impact of
research suggests that compared to NED, PED is less con- ED on levels of depressive symptoms when positive and
sistently linked to emotion regulation deficits and well- negative events happen in everyday life. In addition, we
being (Barrett et al., 2001; Demiralp et al., 2012; Kashdan examine the role of ED in amplifying or decreasing
& Farmer, 2014; Pond et al., 2012). NE and positive emo- depressive symptoms when employing two common
tion (PE) serve different purposes; whereas PEs build emotion regulation strategies: brooding (on NE) and
long-term resources and broaden one’s response reper- savoring (PE).
toire (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001), NEs primarily function to
allocate resources to avoid or mitigate immediate threats
NED and Daily Negative Experiences
(Parrott, 2002). Thus, failure to regulate PEs may be much
less costly than failure to regulate NEs (Barrett et al., 2001; We expect that low NED will predict a stronger association
Quigley & Barrett, 1999). That said, several studies have between everyday negative experiences and daily depres-
suggested that PED does play a role in psychopathological sive symptoms. As noted previously, those with poor NED
processes and coping behaviors (Dixon-Gordon et  al., have more difficulty selecting and implementing effective
2014; Selby et  al., 2014; Tugade et  al., 2004). However, emotion regulation strategies (Barrett et al., 2001; Kashdan
PED has rarely been explored in the context of depres- et  al., 2015) and are more likely to resort to destructive
sion, despite the fact that there has been a sharpening behaviors when confronted with NE (Kashdan et al., 2010;
focus on the role of PEs and rewarding experiences within Pond et  al., 2012; Zaki et  al., 2013). Lacking appropriate
the depression literature (Treadway & Zald, 2011). Indeed, coping skills, these individuals may be more vulnerable to
the absence of PEs and failure to anticipate, seek, and exacerbation of depressive symptoms when negative expe-
benefit from positive experiences are increasingly consid- riences occur. Moreover, a wide body of evidence suggests
ered a central and perhaps defining feature of depression that the act of affect labeling may be regulatory in itself.
(Kovacs et  al., 2016; Pizzagalli et  al., 2009; Rottenberg, Affect labeling has been linked to diminished emotional
2007; Treadway & Zald, 2011; Watson & Naragon-Gainey, reactivity (as measured by self-report, neural activation,
2010; Weinberg, Liu, Hajcak, & Shankman, 2015). Although and autonomic response) following exposure to negative
one prior study failed to document a basic association stimuli (Kircanski, Lieberman, & Craske, 2012; Lieberman
between PED and MDD (Demiralp et al., 2012), PED may et  al., 2007; Lieberman, Inagaki, Tabibnia, & Crockett,
still influence critical daily processes that influence depres- 2011). As NED suggests a greater propensity toward pre-
sive symptoms. cise labeling of emotions, those with higher NED may be
Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms 615

protected against depressive responses following negative depressogenic component of rumination (Treynor,
everyday experiences. Gonzalez, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2003). Low NED may
To our knowledge no studies have examined whether exacerbate the tendency to engage in, and the negative
NED confers reactivity to daily stressors. However, consequences of, brooding. Indeed, those with difficulty
Kashdan et  al. (2014) did find that, among those with understanding their NEs may feel more compelled to
low self-esteem, low NED predicted greater neural reac- dwell on them, and low NED may amplify the negative
tivity in response to social rejection, consistent with the effects of brooding on daily depressive symptoms. For
hypothesis that poor NED serves as a vulnerability factor example, having a more diffuse, generalized perception
that exacerbates the consequences of stressors or other of NEs may mean that intense focus on one negative feel-
kinds of negative environmental events. We thus hypoth- ing (e.g., I feel disappointed) may quickly spread to other
esized that lower NED would predict stronger associa- NEs (I feel sad, I feel guilty, I feel anxious). In turn, brood-
tions between daily negative experiences and daily ing about a wider range of NEs may provoke correspond-
depressive symptoms. ingly broad negative inferences about the self, world, and
future, triggering or exacerbating depressive symptoms.
Little previous work has examined the effects of NED and
PED and Daily Positive Experiences
rumination, though one study showed that high NED pro-
As a corollary, we also examined whether PED would tects against the effects of trait rumination on nonsuicidal
impact the association between everyday positive experi- self-injury in borderline personality disorder (Zaki et al.,
ences and daily depressive symptoms. Although the 2013). We thus hypothesized that low NED would be
depression literature has traditionally focused far more associated with trait rumination and that low NED would
on stressors, positive experiences have long been consid- strengthen the association between daily brooding and
ered important agents in reducing depressive symptoms depressive symptoms.
(Lewinsohn & Graf, 1973; Lewinsohn, Sullivan, & Grosscup, Although rumination is typically shorthand for brood-
1980), and reactivity to positive experiences is being ing and other forms of perseverative focus on NE, rumina-
increasingly explored in the context of depression, both tion can also be in response to PE. For example, savoring
in daily life and within the laboratory (Bylsma, Morris, & refers to PE-focused cognitive responses that serve to
Rottenberg, 2008; Bylsma, Taylor-Clift, & Rottenberg, increase or maintain one’s PEs (Martin & Tesser, 1996;
2011; Peeters, Nicolson, Berkhof, Delespaul, & deVries, Quoidbach, Berry, Hansenne, & Mikolajczak, 2010; Wood,
2003; Starr & Hershenberg, in press; Thompson et  al., Heimpel, & Michela, 2003). Although less widely studied
2012). As previously explained, low PED may amplify than depressive rumination, growing research suggests
salutatory effects of positive events on depressive symp- that savoring may be protective against depression. Higher
toms by allowing for a more diffuse, less constrained PE savoring beliefs are negatively correlated with depression,
experience when “good things” happen. Moreover, and savoring predicts decreased daily depressive symp-
research suggests that positive affect labeling is associ- toms (Bryant, 2003; Hurley & Kwon, 2012; Li, Starr, &
ated with diminished self-reported pleasure (Lieberman Hershenberg, 2016). Analogous to our predictions for
et al., 2011). Therefore, individuals with low PED, who NED and brooding, we expect that the association
are not prone to labeling PEs, may be more reactive to between savoring and lower depressive symptoms will be
daily positive experiences. We thus hypothesized that amplified among those with low PED. For example, for
lower PED would predict stronger associations between those with a less differentiated perception of PE, savoring
daily positive experiences and lower levels of daily one PE (e.g., I feel cheerful) may intensify a broad range
depressive symptoms. of PEs (I feel enthusiastic, I feel confident, etc.), which
may translate into reduced depressive symptoms. Thus,
we hypothesized that the association between savoring
Emotion Differentiation and Positive
and lower depressive symptoms will be amplified among
and Negative Rumination those with low PED.
Next, we considered how NED and PED might interact
with, respectively, negative rumination (brooding) and
positive rumination (savoring). In a wide body of research
The Present Research
that includes longitudinal, daily diary, and experimental We tested these hypotheses across two studies, one in a
evidence, depressive rumination robustly predicts the sample of young adults and another in a sample of veter-
onset and maintenance of negative mood and depressive ans recruited from a primary care cohort being evaluated
episodes (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, for behavioral health symptoms. Both were oversampled
2008). Brooding, or passive focus on negative conse- for depressive symptoms to allow for significant variation
quences of symptoms, has been identified as the most in daily depressive symptoms over the course of the
616 Starr et al.

study. Both studies relied on intensive longitudinal tech- (Vredenburg, Flett, & Krames, 1993). Eligibility criteria for
niques for calculation of PED/NED and testing of hypoth- participation were minimum age of 18 years, access to
eses. These techniques produce real-time data collected Internet and a personal cell phone, and no English com-
in naturalistic settings, minimizing the need for retrospec- prehension difficulties. To ensure we recruited a sample
tive recall and increasing generalizability. Furthermore, with a broad range of depressive symptoms, we con-
objectively calculating ED from momentary affect ratings, ducted a screening study where potential participants
rather than asking participants to self-report on their per- completed a self-report depression measure, the Quick
ceived ability to differentiate emotions, reduces reliance Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology (QIDS; Rush
on introspection and self-awareness. In Study 1, ecologi- et al., 2003). Participants were then preferentially recruited
cal momentary assessment (EMA) and daily diary surveys to achieve approximately equal distribution across three
were both administered over overlapping time periods. categories (based on published clinical thresholds, Rush
EMA data were used to calculate ED, as EMA is better et  al., 2003): no symptoms (QIDS < 6, 31% of sample),
suited to capture discrete emotional states, and daily mild symptoms (QIDS score of 6–10, 33% of sample), and
diary data were used to test study hypotheses (because moderate to severe symptoms (QIDS > 10, 36% of sam-
daily diary allows for longer surveys and more careful ple). Students received extra credit and were entered into
assessment of hassles, uplifts, savoring, and brooding). raffles based on diary compliance. Table 1 reports sample
Study 2 relied exclusively on EMA data, allowing for rep- characteristics. Of the participants recruited, one did not
lication of findings across intensive longitudinal complete diaries, five provided too few valid EMA surveys
approaches. for ED calculation, and two were excluded from analyses
After examining basic associations between ED and after failing inattention checks (described later), resulting
baseline depression and rumination, we tested the follow- in a final sample of 152 participants. This research was
ing hypotheses: approved by the University of Rochester’s Research Sub-
jects Review Board.
Hypothesis 1: Low NED will predict stronger associa-
tions between daily negative experiences and daily Procedure. Participants completed an initial baseline
depressive symptoms. visit and once-a-day daily diaries for 14 consecutive days,
beginning the evening of the baseline visit. Diaries were
Hypothesis 2: Low PED will predict stronger associa-
completed as close to bedtime as convenient. Participants
tions between daily positive experiences and reduc-
completed 10.97 (78.3%) diaries on average. Number of
tions in daily depressive symptoms.
missed diaries was not significantly related to baseline
Hypothesis 3: Low NED will predict stronger associa- depressive symptoms, NED, or PED.
tions between daily brooding and daily depressive In addition to the daily diary, participants also com-
symptoms. pleted a brief EMA protocol by completing short, tele-
Hypothesis 4: Low PED will predict stronger associa- phone-based surveys five times per day for five days. In
tions between daily savoring and reduced daily depres- the current study, EMA data were used for the computa-
sive symptoms. tion of NED/PED only; all hypotheses were tested using
daily diary data. EMA surveys were administered using
With the exception of Hypothesis 3, which was exam- the telephone-based platform telEMA (Fernandez,
ined only in Study 1, all hypotheses were tested in Johnson, & Rodebaugh, 2013). Participants designated
both samples, allowing for direct replication across time-of-day windows (typically 12 hr) in which they were
two samples that varied considerably in depression available to complete surveys. The daily window was
risk, demographic characteristics, and experience sam- divided into five equal intervals, and one call was placed
pling methodology. at a random time within each of the five intervals, with
the additional constraint that no two calls could be less
than 1.5 hr apart (to minimize burden). Participants were
Study 1 able to designate multiple phone numbers and specify the
number of repeat calls they would receive if they missed
a call. Participants had up to 30 min to call a designated
Participants.  We recruited 160 undergraduate psychol- number to complete a survey if they missed a call. EMAs
ogy students. Although they should not be considered were typically started the day after baseline participation
representative of clinical populations, college students are (thus, EMA and daily diary periods overlapped) and were
vulnerable to depressive symptoms (e.g., Garlow et  al., always timed so that the 5-day period included three
2008), and research suggests that findings generated in weekdays and two weekend days. Item order was ran-
undergraduate samples generalize to clinical samples domized within blocks. During the data cleaning process,
Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms 617

Table 1.  Demographic Information and Descriptive Data for ment purposes and then readministered at baseline and
Study 1 and Study 2 utilized as a continuous score. Previous research has sup-
Variable Study 1 Study 2 ported the psychometric properties of the QIDS (Rush
et al., 2003; Rush et al., 2006). For example, the QIDS has
N 157 50 demonstrated construct validity through correlations with
Age 20.10 (1.23) 56.48 (14.06) depressive symptoms and diagnoses, as well as sensitivity
% female 81 12 to symptom change (Gonzalez, Boals, Jenkins, Schuler, &
Race   Taylor, 2013; Trivedi et al., 2004). Cronbach’s alpha in this
  % Caucasian 57 44 study was .84. Baseline rumination was assessed using
  % African American 6 52 the Ruminative Response Scale (RRS; Nolen-Hoeksema
  % Asian 29 0
& Morrow, 1991), a widely used 22-item scale prompt-
  % Other 7 4
ing respondents to rate the frequency of 22 ruminative
Baseline depressive symptoms 8.81 (5.19) 12.92 (6.00)
thoughts or behaviors. The RRS has excellent internal con-
Baseline rumination 56.56 (15.03) 53.90 (15.58)
sistency and external validity (Butler & Nolen-Hoeksema,
NED 0.83 (0.13) 0.74 (0.20)
PED 0.66 (0.18) 0.56 (0.21)
1994; Nolen-Hoeksema & Morrow, 1991); in this sample,
Aggregated daily/momentary   Cronbach’s alpha was .94.
 Depressive Sx/depressed 4.00 (4.29) 1.85 (0.81) Diary items: Daily negative and positive experiences. 
mood Daily negative (“hassles”) and positive (“uplifts”) experi-
  Negative experiences/hassles 7.83 (5.45) 2.41 (0.70) ences were assessed based on methods of Totenhagen,
  Positive experiences/uplifts 10.71 (6.29) 3.59 (0.70) Serido, Curran, and Butler (2012). Participants were given
 Brooding 9.41 (3.18) — a list of items and asked to indicate how much of a hassle
 Savoring 1.97 (0.56) 2.53 (0.87) and an uplift each item was on that day on a scale of 0
(none) to 3 (a great deal). Items ranged across 15 gen-
Note: Values are means, with standard deviations in parentheses,
unless otherwise noted. All variables (except rumination) were eral life domains: (a) parents and family members, (b)
assessed using different measures in Study 1 and Study 2, and romantic life, (c) close friends, (d) other peers, (e) social
therefore descriptive data should not be directly compared across events, (f) career, (g) finances, (h) exercise, (i) health,
studies. Baseline depressive symptoms assessed with QIDS (Rush
et al., 2003) in Study 1 and PHQ-9 (Kroenke et al., 2001) in Study 2.
(j) chores, (k) hobbies, (l) extracurricular activities, (m)
NED and PED were computed using different indicators of NEs and recreation, (n) online activities, and (o) other. An average
PEs and may also not be directly comparable. See the Method sections total score was then computed for hassles and uplifts,
for Study 1 and Study 2 for more detail. respectively. Internal consistency for these and other daily
measures was computed by separately computing Cron-
bach’s alphas for each of the fourteen days and then cal-
EMA data were inspected for evidence of invalid response culating the mean. Mean internal consistency for hassles
patterns (e.g., repeatedly entering identical numbers), and and uplifts were .83 and .84, respectively. Hassles and
suspicious data were excluded. Participants completed an uplifts scales in this sample were significantly associated
average of 19.44 EMAs (78%), and 80% of the sample with concurrent daily depressive symptoms, PE, and NE
completed at least 18/25 EMAs. Four participants com- in expected directions, supporting construct validity (see
pleted three or fewer valid EMAs and were excluded. also Li et al., 2016; Starr & Hershenberg, in press).
In line with Maniaci and Rogge’s (2014) recommenda-
tion, we included six inattention items in the baseline mea- Diary items: Daily depressive symptoms. We assessed
sure to identify inattentive respondents. Exclusion of daily depressive symptoms using a modified version of
inattentive respondents improves statistical power (Maniaci the seven-item Depression subscale of the Depression
& Rogge, 2014). Two participants failed inattention checks Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS; Antony, Bieling, Cox, Enns,
consistently and were excluded from all analyses. & Swinson, 1998). Items are rated on a Likert-type scale
from 0 to 3. The DASS has demonstrated strong psycho-
Measures metric properties (Brown, Chorpita, Korotitsch, & Barlow,
Baseline.  Baseline depressive symptom severity was 1997; Clara, Cox, & Enns, 2001). The original items were
measured using the QIDS (Rush et  al., 2003), a 16-item modified so that the time frame indicates the current day
self-report questionnaire assessing the nine criterion (e.g., “Indicate how much the statement applied to you
symptom domains of MDD according to the fourth edi- today”). Supporting validity, aggregated mean of daily
tion of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental DASS depressive symptoms was significantly correlated
Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). The with baseline depressive symptoms (r = .61, p < .001).
QIDS was administered in the screening study for recruit- Mean internal consistency across individual days was .93.
618 Starr et al.

Diary items: Daily brooding and savoring. Daily has been used in multiple previous studies (e.g., Hill &
brooding was assessed using the five-item Brooding sub- Updegraff, 2012; Selby et al., 2014; Tugade & Fredrickson,
scale of the RRS (Treynor et al., 2003), with instructions 2007). Mean emotion intensity (used as a covariate) was
modified to cover brooding over the course of the cur- calculated by taking the mean levels of NE and PE for
rent day. Each item was rated on a 4-point Likert-type each participant across all EMA observations.
scale. This scale, which has shown excellent psycho­
metric properties in between-persons studies (Miranda
Data analytic approach
& Nolen-Hoeksema, 2007; Moberly & Watkins, 2008;
Treynor et  al., 2003), has been previously adapted to We used multilevel modeling (MLM) using SPSS 23.0
assess daily brooding in daily diary research (Starr, 2015). MIXED. MLM is a powerful statistical approach that
Reports of daily brooding using this measure have been accounts for the nested, nonindependent nature of inten-
associated with baseline rumination measures and con- sive longitudinal data. Repeated measures were nested
current depressed mood (Li et al., 2016; Starr, 2015), sup- within participants. Most hypotheses were tested using
porting construct validity of the daily measure. Savoring cross-level interactions (known as slopes-as-outcomes
was assessed using a shortened version of the Response models) between a Level 1 (within-subjects) predictor
to Positive Affect scale (RPA; Feldman, Joormann, & (daily hassles, uplifts, brooding, or savoring) and a Level
Johnson, 2008), with instructions prompting participants 2 (between-subjects) moderator (NED or PED). MLM
to consider how they have responded to feeling “happy, copes well with missing data and has greater statistical
excited, or enthused” modified to apply to the current power compared to traditional analytic approaches.
day only. Consistent with previous research suggesting All predictors were entered as fixed effects, with Level
that emotion-focused (EF) and self-focused (SF) positive 1 variables and the intercept also modeled as random
rumination compose a single factor (Nelis et  al., 2016), effects. Level 2 predictors were mean centered. In addi-
two items with the highest factor loadings were taken tion, following the recent recommendations of Bolger and
from the EF and SF subscales respectively to create a Laurenceau (2013), we partitioned each Level 1 predictor
four-item daily savoring scale (e.g., “Think about how into two orthogonal components: a between-subjects
happy you feel”), each rated on a 4-point Likert-type component, represented by the person’s grand-mean-cen-
scale. The full RPA scale has shown adequate internal tered aggregated mean score over the course of the full
consistency as well as convergent and incremental valid- diary period (i.e., a means component, X ⋅ j ), and a
ity (Feldman et al., 2008; Raes, Daems, Feldman, Johnson, within-subjects component, represented by the person-
& Van Gucht, 2010). In support of the validity of the daily mean-centered score (i.e., the daily deviation from the
application of the RPA, Li et al. (2016) showed that base- means component, X ij − X ⋅ j ). Both within- and between-
line savoring was significantly associated with aggregated subjects components were included for all Level 1 predic-
mean ratings of daily savoring (r = .50, p < .01). Mean tors, both as main effects and in cross-level interactions.
daily Cronbach’s alpha for brooding and savoring were The inclusion of the between-subjects components of
.86 and .83, respectively. Level 1 variables enhances the interpretability of models
by ensuring that results are not artifacts of individual dif-
Positive and negative emotion differentiation. In the ferences in the average level of the variable (e.g., the ten-
EMA survey, we calculated current PE and NE based on dency for some people to brood more than others).
ratings on standard mood adjectives used in emotion However, results for the between-subjects variables are
reactivity research (replicating Bylsma et  al., 2011; also not themselves considered interpretable (Bolger &
see Hershenberg, Mavandadi, Wright, & Thase, 2017). Laurenceau, 2013). Thus, although results for between-
Seven positive mood ratings (talkative, enthusiastic, confi- subjects variables are included in Table 1 for the sake of
dent, cheerful, energetic, satisfied, and happy) and seven comprehensiveness, readers should focus primarily on
negative mood ratings (tense, anxious, distracted, restless, results for the “within” variables (e.g., broodingwithin); for
irritated, depressed, guilty) were assessed on each call. simplicity, “between” variables are not described in the
To calculate ED, average intraclass correlation coefficients Results section text. It is important that this caveat only
(ICCs) for either PE or NE items were calculated for each applies to the between-subjects component of Level 1
participant across all assessments (Shrout & Fleiss, 1979; variables; Level 2 variables (e.g., NED/PED) are inherently
Tugade et al., 2004). For ease of interpretation, ICCs were between-subjects and are interpretable. Note that use of
subtracted from 1.0 to reverse the score, so that higher this relatively new analytic approach did not substantially
NED/PED scores reflect greater ED ability and lower change results, as compared to a more traditional
scores reflected lower differentiation of discrete emotions. approach where between-subjects components of Level 1
This established, well-validated method of calculating ED variables were not included.
Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms 619

We also controlled for time in all models to ensure that remained unchanged when controlling for mean emotion
effects were not artifacts of temporal change. We applied intensity; thus, for parsimony, we do not present the mod-
a first-order autoregressive (AR[1]) model to correct for els including this additional covariate.
autocorrelation of residuals and an unstructured covari-
ance matrix for random effects. Daily depressive symp-
toms (concurrent to predictors) were entered as the Results
outcome in all MLM models. The Study 1 EMA data set (used for the computation of
Following the notation of Bolger and Laurenceau ED) included 3,029 valid observations. Average ICC levels
(2013), moderation models (Hypotheses 1–4) can be were .17 for NE and .34 for PE, resulting in mean NED
described with the following equations: and PED (1-ICC) of .83 and .66 respectively.
Level 1: The Study 1 daily diary data set included 1,723 valid
  observations. Descriptive data for study variables are
( )
Yij = β0 j + β1 j X ij − X ⋅ j + β2 j ( Time ) + εij
reported in Table 1.
As a preliminary step, we examined bivariate correla-
Level 2: tions between NED, PED, baseline depressive symptoms
  (QIDS), and baseline rumination (RRS). We found a mar-
β0 j = γ 00 + γ 01W j + γ 02 X ⋅ j + γ 03W j X ⋅ j + u0 j ginally significant, negative association between NED and
(2) QIDS (r = −.16, p = .056) but no correlation between PED
β1 j = γ10 + γ11W j + u1 j and QIDS (p > .05). NED was significantly correlated with
(3) baseline RRS (r = .19, p = .017). NED and PED were also
significantly correlated with each other (r = .19, p = .017).
β2 j = γ 20
Hypothesis 1.  Next, we examined whether NED moder-
These equations can be simplified into the following ated the association between fluctuations in daily hassles
equation, in which the first seven terms denote fixed and daily depressive symptoms. As described in the Data
effects and the last three terms represent random effects Analytic Approach section, a model was constructed that
(see Bolger & Laurenceau, 2013): included main effects for daily hassles and NED as well as
  their interaction and the effects of time. Full results are
Yij = γ 00 + γ 01W j + γ 02 X ⋅ j + γ 03W j X ⋅ j reported in Table 2. The interaction between daily hassles
   
( ) (
+ γ10 X ij − X ⋅ j + γ11W j X ij − X ⋅ j ) and NED were not significant (p > .05). Although nonsig-
nificant, the interaction is illustrated in Figure 1a-i to facili-
 
( )
+ γ 20 ( Time ) + u0 j + u1 j X ij − X ⋅ j + εij
tate comparison with Study 2.

Hypothesis 2.  Next, we tested whether low PED moder-

For example, in the model constructed to test Hypothesis  ated the association between uplift fluctuations and daily
3, W j  represents
 NED (the Level 2 moderator), X ⋅ j depressive symptoms. Following the approach described
and X ij − X ⋅ j respectively represent main effects for earlier, we constructed a multilevel model with daily
broodingbetween and broodingwithin (the Level 1 predictor), uplifts, NED, and their interaction, as well as time, with
  
( )
and W j X ⋅ j and W j X ij − X ⋅ j respectively denote NED daily depressive symptoms entered as the outcome. Full
× broodingbetween and NED × broodingwithin interactions. In results are reported in Table 2. As shown there, the main
all moderation models, of primary interest is the signifi- effect for uplifts (but not PED) was significant, p < .001. Of
 
cance of the sixth term in Equation 5, W j X ij − X ⋅ j , the ) note, the interaction term was significant, p = .004. The
interaction between ED and the within-subjects compo- significant interaction was decomposed using a simple
nent of the Level 1 variable. Significant interactions were slope tests (Aiken & West, 1991; Preacher et  al., 2006).
probed using simple slope tests (Aiken & West, 1991; Supporting Hypothesis 2, as illustrated in Figure 2a-i, the
Preacher, Curran, & Bauer, 2006) at one standard devia- negative association between daily uplifts and daily
tion above and below the moderator’s mean. depressive symptoms was stronger when PED was low
Finally, because individuals prone to more extreme (M − 1 SD), b = −0.16, SE = 0.03, p < .001; in contrast,
(i.e., higher or lower) levels of negative and positive affect uplifts did not significantly predict reductions in depres-
will have a restricted range of emotion ratings, we also sive symptoms when PED was high (M + 1 SD), b = −0.03,
controlled for mean emotion intensity (NE intensity in SE = 0.03, p = .403.
Hypotheses 1 and 3, PE intensity in Hypotheses 2 and 4).
Doing so was a conservative approach to rule out any Hypothesis 3. We next examined whether NED pre-
concerns related to a restricted range. Note that results dicted stronger positive associations between daily
620 Starr et al.

Table 2.  Results of Multilevel Models Predicting Daily Depressive Symptoms From Daily Variables, as Moderated by
Negative and Positive Emotion Differentiation

Study 1 Study 2

Variable b (SE) p 95% CI b (SE) p 95% CI

Hypothesis 1  
Intercept 4.32 (0.35) <.001 [3.63, 5.00] 1.77 (0.15) <.001 [1.48, 2.07]
Neg. experienceswithin 0.20 (0.03) <.001 [0.14, 0.25] 0.21 (0.03) <.001 [0.14, 0.28]
NED −4.16 (2.48) .096 [−9.06, 0.74] −0.49 (0.51) .357 [−1.49, 0.56]
NED × neg. experienceswithin −0.16 (0.22) .468 [−0.60, 0.28] −0.69 (0.16) <.001 [−1.02, −0.41]
Neg. experiencesbetween 0.30 (0.06) <.001 [0.18, 0.41] 0.70 (0.19) .001 [0.32, 1.07]
NED × neg. experiencesbetween 0.85 (0.38) .027 [0.10, 1.60] −2.12 (1.31) .112 [−4.76, 0.52]
Time −0.06 (0.02) .006 [3.63, 5.00] 0.00 (0.00) .027 [0.00, 0.00]
Time of daya n/a 0.00 (0.00) .902 [0.00, 0.00]
Hypothesis 2  
Intercept 4.81 (0.38) <.001 [4.07, 5.55] 1.81 (0.15) <.001 [1.52, 2.10]
Pos. experienceswithin −0.10 (0.02) <.001 [−0.14, −0.05] −0.22 (0.04) <.001 [−0.29, −0.14]
PED 1.99 (1.97) .313 [−1.89, 5.88] −0.07 (0.50) .883 [−1.08, 0.94]
PED × pos. experienceswithin 0.38 (0.13) .004 [0.12, 0.64] 0.56 (0.17) .002 [0.21, 0.90]
Pos. experiencesbetween −0.03 (0.05) .552 [−0.14, 0.07] −0.52 (0.17) .003 [−0.86, −0.19]
PED × pos. experiencesbetween 0.07 (0.27) .803 [−0.46, 0.59] −0.29 (0.65) .657 [−1.58, 1.01]
Time −0.14 (0.02) <.001 [−0.19, −0.09] 0.00 (0.00) .029 [0.00, 0.00]
Time of daya n/a 0.00 (0.00) .778 [0.00, 0.00]
Hypothesis 3b  
Intercept 4.24 (0.28) <.001 [3.69, 4.79] n/a  
Daily broodingwithin 0.46 (0.04) <.001 [0.38, 0.55]  
NED −1.80 (1.95) .357 [−5.65, 2.05]  
NED × broodingwithin −0.73 (0.33) .028 [−1.38, −0.08]  
Daily broodingbetween 0.80 (0.07) <.001 [0.65, 0.94]  
NED × broodingbetween −0.45 (0.50) .368 [−1.43, 0.54]  
Time −0.07 (0.02) <.001 [−0.11, −0.04]  
Hypothesis 4  
Intercept 4.73 (0.35) <.001 [4.04, 5.42] 1.94 (0.15) <.001 [1.64, 2.24]
Daily savoringwithin −1.54 (0.22) <.001 [−1.97, −1.11] −0.16 (0.05) .004 [−0.27, −0.05]
PED 2.74 (1.84) .139 [−0.9, 6.39] −0.09 (0.52) .860 [−1.15, 0.96]
PED × daily savoringwithin 4.15 (1.19) .001 [1.79, 6.51] 0.48 (0.26) .072 [−0.05, 1.01]
Daily savoringbetween −2.28 (0.58) <.001 [−3.43, −1.12] −0.08 (0.13) .541 [−0.19, 0.35]
PED × daily savoringbetween −1.21 (0.26) .672 [−7.50, 4.85] −1.21 (0.58) .029 [−2.30, −0.13]
Time −0.13 (0.02) <.001 [−0.17, −0.08] 0.00 (0.00) .016 [0.00, 0.00]
Time of daya n/a 0.00 (0.00) .279 [0.00, 0.00]

Note: Focal moderation findings are bolded. Daily depressive symptoms (depressed mood in Study 2) was the outcome variable in all
models. Positive and negative experiences defined respectively as uplifts and hassles in Study 1 and pleasantness/unpleasantness of
recent activities in Study 2.
Study 2 only.
Hypothesis 3 was not evaluated in Study 2.

brooding and daily depressive symptoms. NED and daily daily brooding were more predictive of same-day depres-
brooding were entered into a multilevel model as both sive symptoms at low levels of NED, b = 0.56, SE = 0.06,
main effects and an interactive effect, along with time, t(136.65) = 9.21, p < .001, as compared to high levels, b =
with daily depressive symptoms as the outcome. Full 0.37, SE = 0.06, p < .001.
results are displayed in Table 2. The main effect for brood-
ing was significant, p < .001, but not for NED. Supporting Hypothesis 4.  Finally, we examined whether PED like-
Hypothesis 3, the interaction between daily brooding wise predicted stronger associations between daily savor-
fluctuations and NED was significant, p = .028. Decompo- ing and reduced depressed mood. Analogous to the
sition is illustrated in Figure 1b. As expected, reports of earlier presented models, we constructed a model that
Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms 621

Fig. 1.  Daily depressive symptoms as a function of (a) recent negative experiences (Hypothesis 1, with results from [i] Study 1 and [ii] Study 2)
and (b) daily brooding (Hypothesis 3, Study 1 only), as moderated by negative emotion differentiation.

included PED, daily savoring, PED × daily savoring, and high risk for first onset of depression (Kessler, Berglund,
time. As shown in Table 2, the main effect for savoring Demler, Jin, & Walters, 2005), and research suggests that
(but not for PED) was significant, p < .001. Moreover, undergraduate samples generate comparable findings to
supporting Hypothesis 4, the interaction was significant, clinical samples (e.g., Vredenburg et al., 1993). That said,
p = .001 and is presented in Figure 2b-i. As predicted, some have criticized the overreliance on college samples
daily savoring more strongly predicted lower depressive to study clinical phenomena (Coyne, 1994). A higher risk
symptoms for those with low PED, b = −2.26, SE = 0.30, sample could arguably produce findings more applicable
p < .001, compared to those with high PED, b = −0.81, to clinical depression. From a demographic standpoint,
SE = 0.30, p = .008. as with most studies recruiting from psychology courses,
our sample had a limited age range and was predomi-
nantly female. This is potentially problematic because ED
Conclusions and limitations increases with age (Carstensen, Pasupathi, Mayr, &
These results provide broad support for the majority of Nesselroade, 2000), and depression risk (and rumination)
hypotheses (with the notable exception of Hypothesis 1; varies considerably by gender (Nolen-Hoeksema, Larson,
we found no support for NED conferring stress reactivity & Grayson, 1999). Replicating findings in a sample with
in this sample). Results should be interpreted in the con- markedly different demographics and higher clinical risk
text of study limitations. First, this study utilized an would provide greater confidence in the generalizability
undergraduate sample. On one hand, young adults are at of results.
622 Starr et al.

Fig. 2.  Findings from (i) Study 1 and (ii) Study 2 showing daily depressive symptoms as a function of (a) recent positive experiences (Hypoth-
esis 2) and (b) recent savoring (Hypothesis 4), as moderated by positive emotion differentiation.

Furthermore, all Study 1 models reflect concurrent male veterans recruited from a primary care cohort being
associations (i.e., the Level 1 predictor variable was evaluated for behavioral health symptoms. Veterans are
reported at the same time as the outcome variable). The at substantially higher risk for mental health problems
daily diary design (with a full-day interval between sur- compared to the general population (Dohrenwend et al.,
veys), while offering numerous benefits, was not well 2006; Seal, Bertenthal, Miner, Sen, & Marmar, 2007), thus,
suited for testing lagged effects. The effects of daily depressive symptoms reported in this sample may be
events tend to quickly dissipate and are sometimes coun- more reflective of clinically significant pathology. This
tered by mood rebound effects, making lagged findings sample used an experience sampling/EMA approach in
often elusive when using daily diary designs (Bolger, which participants were signaled multiple times per day
DeLongis, Kessler, & Schilling, 1989; Stone, Neale, & to complete surveys in naturalistic settings at random
Shiffman, 1993). Because we tested only concurrent intervals. We tested the same hypotheses as in Study 1,
models in Study 1, it is unclear if predictor variables pre- with the exception of Hypothesis 3 (NED × brooding),
ceded outcomes; the reverse direction of causality for which data were not available. In addition, because
remains a possibility (for example, those with low NED the EMA approach allowed for shorter intervals between
may be more prone to generating negative experiences surveys, we were able to explore lagged models (predic-
when depressed). tor variables temporally preceding outcomes) in addition
To address these limitations, we tested hypotheses in to testing concurrent models, analogous to the diary
a second study, which included a sample of older, largely design.
Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms 623

Study 2 study procedures were approved by the Corporal Michael

J. Crescenz VAMC Institutional Review Board.
Participants and procedure. We recruited veterans Baseline
with a range of depression severity based on scores on Depressive symptoms.  Participants rated the frequency
the Patient Health Questionnaire−9 (PHQ-9; Kroenke, over the past two weeks with which they experienced
Spitzer, & Williams, 2001) from a primary care cohort each of nine symptoms of depression using the PHQ-9
being evaluated for behavioral health symptoms at a (Kroenke et  al., 2001). Psychometric properties of the
northeastern Veteran Affairs Medical Center. The Behav- PHQ-9 are well established (Spitzer, Kroenke, Williams,
ioral Health Laboratory (BHL) within the VAMC collects & Group, 1999; Spitzer, Williams, Kroenke, Homyak, &
screening data on new veteran patient referrals on an McMurray, 2000), and Cronbach’s alpha in this study was
ongoing basis. Potentially eligible veterans were identi- .83. Baseline rumination was measured with the RRS
fied by their responses to the PHQ-9 included in the BHL (see Study 1).
assessment; those eligible to participate and interested in
hearing more about the study were contacted by study Momentary positive and negative experiences. At
staff. Veterans were selectively recruited to achieve an the time of each phone call, participants were asked to
approximate distribution of one third no depressive report “how you were spending your time before you
symptoms, one third minor depression, and one third took a break to take this survey.” To rate the valence of
major depression, according to PHQ-9 cut-offs (Kroenke their current activity, participants used a face-valid, con-
et al., 2001). Exclusion criteria included psychotic disor- tinuous scale, ranging from 1 (most unpleasant) to 5
ders and current mania. Although sampling methods spe- (most pleasant). We refer to this scale as “pleasant activi-
cifically targeted an overselection of depression, the ties.” To facilitate comparisons with Study 1, for Hypoth-
sample was psychiatrically and medically heterogeneous; esis 1 only we reverse coded the scale, so that greater
1 participant (2%) had a probable past manic episode, 25 scores reflect more unpleasant recent experiences (which
participants (50%) received a probable diagnosis of post- we refer to as “unpleasant activities”).
traumatic stress disorder, 34 participants (68%) indicated
significant interference from pain, and four participants NED and PED. On each phone call, after rating the
(8%) were considered at risk for alcohol problems. pleasantness of their current activity, participants were
Interested veterans were invited to a laboratory ses- asked to “Keep thinking about how you felt before you
sion, during which they provided a baseline measure of took a break to take this survey. Use a 1 to 5 scale, where
depressive symptoms with repeated administration of the 1 is ‘I didn’t feel this way at all’ and 5 is ‘I felt this way a
PHQ-9 and received instructions on the EMA portion of great deal.’” We used the same adjectives as in Study 1,
the study, which began the following day. We collected and PED and NED were computed using identical proce-
EMA data using Interactive Voice Recording, a phone- dures as in Study 1.
based system for collecting data via keypad press. Partici-
pants were called six times per day for seven days. Calls Momentary depressed mood. Depressed mood was
occurred on a random basis within a 12-hr block of par- assessed using the rating for the single item, “I felt
ticipant designated time (e.g., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.). If they depressed,” on the 1 to 5 continuous scale described ear-
missed the call, participants were given 25 min to call lier. The use of single-item indicators of mood is rela-
back a toll-free number to complete the survey. We tively common in EMA/diary research (as brevity is
worked closely with participants during the baseline critical for survey compliance) and is psychometrically
assessment to make sure that they understood the items justifiable for noncomplex constructs (Burisch, 1997;
being asked of them on the phone surveys. Adherence to Laurenceau, Barrett, & Rovine, 2005; Starr, 2015; Starr &
the protocol was monitored, and we reached out to par- Davila, 2012a).
ticipants to troubleshoot noncompliance. Participants
received $35 for the lab session and $2.50 per EMA call Savoring. Similar to Study 1, savoring items were
(max payment $140). Participants completed an average adapted from Feldman and colleagues’ (2008) RPA scale,
of 69% of calls (M = 29.10, SD = 10; modal number of although in this study, all items were taken from the EF
calls 39 out of 42), which is comparable to other EMA scale of the RPA (no items from the SF scale were admin-
studies (Bylsma et al., 2011). Rate of missed surveys was istered; we still refer to this scale as savoring for consis-
unrelated to baseline depression, NED, or PED. Demo- tency with Study 1, but note that in this study it reflects
graphic information is displayed in Table 1; as shown, the somewhat narrower construct of emotion-focused
veterans were predominantly male and racially diverse. savoring). Participants were asked, “How have you
The majority (72%) were older than 50 years of age. All responded to these feelings?” (i.e., their emotion ratings)
624 Starr et al.

using a 1 (not at all) to 5 (a great deal) scale. We admin- (M PED = 0.56, SD = 0.44). Baseline depressive symptoms
istered three emotion-focused items, “I started to think were significantly, negatively correlated with NED (r =
about how happy I feel,” “I started to think about how −.29, p = .040), but not with PED (r = −.23, p = .116). NED
strong I feel,” and “I savored this moment,” and took their was significantly, negatively correlated with baseline
average for a total savoring score. Mean Cronbach’s alpha rumination (r = −.31, p = .033). NED and PED were also
(computed separately for each prompt, and then aver- significantly correlated with each other (r = .40, p = .004).
aged) was .77.
Hypothesis 1. We next examined whether low NED
predicted stronger associations between unpleasantness
Data analytic approach
ratings of recent activities and depressed mood. Follow-
Prior to data analysis, EMA data were inspected and sus- ing the prescribed data analytic plan, we tested a model
picious response patterns (e.g., large numbers of identi- that included unpleasant activities, NED, and their inter-
cal numeric responses) were flagged for exclusion (see action, as well as total elapsed time, time of day, and
McCabe, Mack, & Fleeson, 2012). The analytic approach between-subjects components of unpleasant activities as
for Study 2 was similar to that in Study 1, with the follow- covariates. Full results appear in Table 2. As shown, there
ing changes to accommodate the EMA design. A continu- was a main effect for negative experiences, but not for
ous variable representing time passed since the first NED. It is important that the NED × unpleasant experi-
completed survey was used as the repeated measures ences interaction was significant (p < .001). Decomposi-
variable and was entered as a covariate to account for tion revealed that, in line with expectations, at low levels
temporal artifacts. To control for possible effects of diur- of NED, unpleasant activities were strongly related to
nal mood variation, time of day was also included in all depressed mood, b = 0.35, SE = 0.04, p < .001, whereas at
concurrent models (as shown in Table 2, this variable high levels of NED, unpleasant activities were not signifi-
was not significant in any models and was dropped from cantly predictive of depressed mood, b = 0.07, SE = 0.05,
lagged models to for parsimony). As in Study 1, we ran p = .150 (see Figure 1a-ii for illustration).
additional models including mean emotion intensity as a We also tested this hypothesis using lagged data,
covariate in tests of all hypotheses; findings were not where NED was examined as a moderator of the lagged
substantially impacted, and results presented here association between unpleasant activities at the previous
exclude this covariate for simplicity. Depressed mood signal and current depressed mood.1 The interaction was
was entered as the outcome variable in all MLM again significant, b = −0.50, SE = 0.22, p = .031. At low
analyses. levels of NED, negative experiences predicted nonsignifi-
We tested both concurrent and lagged models in this cant increases in depressed mood, b = 0.08, SE = 0.06, p =
sample. To create lagged variables, data for each signal .171, whereas at high levels, negative experiences actu-
were shifted in our data set, so that depressed mood at ally predicted marginal decreases in depressed mood,
each signal t could be predicted by variables at signal b = −0.12, SE = 0.07, p = .096.
t − 1. To prevent overnight lags, the first signal of each
day was excluded as outcomes; because this reduced the Hypothesis 2.  We next tested PED as a moderator of the
amount of data available for analysis, power was corre- association between pleasantness ratings of recent activi-
spondingly reduced in lagged analyses. Moreover, effects ties and depressed mood, by testing a model that included
are generally weaker in lagged analyses (because effects pleasant activities, PED, PED × pleasant activities, and
of within-day events are typically short-lived; Marco & time and between-subjects component covariates. As
Suls, 1993). Consequently, we consider lagged models shown in Table 2, the main effect for positive experiences
exploratory, as they may be somewhat underpowered (but not PED) was significant. Notably, the focal interac-
and should be interpreted in conjunction with concurrent tion term was significant. We probed the significant inter-
models. Time lag between observations was included as action, as shown in Figure 2a-ii, and found that, consistent
a covariate in lagged models to account for nonequal with hypotheses and Study 1 results, pleasant activities
intervals. sharply predicted reduced depressed mood at low levels
of PED, b = −0.33, SE = 0.05, p < .001, but only marginally
predicted lower depressed mood at high levels of PED,
Results b = −0.10, SE = 0.05, p = .071. Testing the same hypothesis
The Study 2 data set included 1,455 valid observations. using lagged data, we again found a significant interac-
Table 1 displays descriptive data for major study vari- tion, b = 0.58, SE = 0.20, p = .020, with a similar pattern of
ables. In this data set, mean NE ICC was 0.26 (M NED = results, with positive experiences predicting decreased
1-ICC = 0.74, SD = 0.20) and mean PE ICC was 0.44 later depressed mood only at low levels of PED.2
Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms 625

Hypothesis 4.  Finally, we examined whether PED pre- cause depressed people to perceive NE in a blunt, over-
dicts strengthened associations between daily savoring generalized manner. Discrete emotional states provide a
and depressed mood. We constructed a multilevel model wealth of information about the nature of the emotional
where daily savoring, PED, and their interaction pre- situation, its potential consequences, and effective regula-
dicted concurrent depressed mood, with total elapsed tion strategies (Parrott, 2002); decreased ability to discern
time, time of day, and between-subjects savoring compo- nuance in NE experiences puts depressed individuals at
nents as covariates. Full results are listed in Table 2; as an inherent disadvantage for managing these emotions.
displayed there, the main effect for savoring was signifi- Furthermore, the act of affect labeling may be implicitly
cant. The interaction between PED and savoring was regulatory (e.g., Kircanski et  al., 2012; Lieberman et  al.,
marginally significant, p = .072 (it is interesting that this 2011). That said, our data (as with other existing studies)
interaction was significant in supplemental analyses con- cannot distinguish between two important possibilities:
trolling for the covariate of mean emotional intensity, p = that low NED is a preexisting risk factor for the emer-
.046). Aligning with predictions and with Study 1 find- gence of depression, or that low NED is a feature of
ings, daily savoring predicted significantly decreased depression that emerges with onset and improves with
concurrent depressed mood among those with low PED, remission. Future research using long-term longitudinal
b = −0.27, SE = 0.07, p = .001, but not among those with design can help to resolve this important question.
high PED, b = −0.06, SE = 0.08, p = .459 (see Figure 2b-ii). The current research does provide evidence that ED
When substituting lagged depressed mood as the out- (both negative and positive) influences the ebb and flow
come, the interaction was nonsignificant (p = .113) of depressive symptoms. First, the present study is the
though trended similarly such that momentary savoring first to show that poor NED predicts a stronger associa-
was predictive of decreases in depressed mood among tion between daily negative experiences and daily
those with lower levels of PED. depressive symptoms. This suggests that the effects of NE
differentiation may be more salient in the context of neg-
ative experiences. This finding is consistent with the
General Discussion affect-as-information theory, which posits that specific,
Drawing from two intensive longitudinal studies with differentiated NE experiences are more adaptive than
complementary designs and samples, our findings pro- global affective states because they are subject to fewer
vide evidence for roles of both NED and PED in modulat- misattribution errors (Schwarz & Clore, 1996). When peo-
ing within-person variations in depressive symptoms in ple have the ability to discriminate between discrete
daily life. Results largely replicated across both studies, emotional states elicited by a negative event, they are
despite substantial differences in sample demographics; better able to identify the cause of the emotional experi-
although both samples were oversampled for depressive ence and generate an adaptive response, whereas those
symptoms, Study 1 featured undergraduate, predomi- who experience undifferentiated, global affective states
nately female young adults and Study 2 included veter- cannot (Russell & Barrett, 1999). This capacity may be
ans recruited from a primary care cohort being evaluated particularly relevant to depressive symptoms because the
for behavioral health symptoms who were predominantly meaning attributed to adverse events (e.g., interpreting
males older than 50. The consistency of findings across them as internal, global, and stable) is often associated
such divergent samples supports the robustness and gen- with the etiology and maintenance of symptoms
eralizability of our pattern of results. (Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989; Hankin, Fraley, &
First, we found evidence that NED (but not PED) was Abela, 2005; Weiner, 1974). Moreover, greater NE differ-
correlated with depressive symptoms, aligning with other entiation is correlated with the selection and implemen-
studies that have linked low NED to depressive symptoms tation of effective emotion regulation strategies (Barrett
and disorders (Demiralp et  al., 2012; Erbas et  al., 2014; et al., 2001; Kashdan et al., 2015), and the act of labeling
Golston et  al., 1992). This finding is consistent with emotions may itself help regulate emotions (Kircanski
research linking depression to alexithymia, a personality et  al., 2012; Lieberman et  al., 2007; Lieberman et  al.,
trait marked in part by blunted ability to identify 2011). Accordingly, decreased differentiation may lead to
and describe one’s emotions (Honkalampi, Hintikka, more difficulties coping with negative experiences and
Tanskanen, Lehtonen, & Viinamäki, 2000). Individuals their resulting emotions and increased daily depressive
with depression show a broad range of deficits in cogni- symptoms.
tive functioning, including overgeneralized autobiograph- Moreover, NED moderated the associations between
ical memory, negative attentional biases, reduced pro- daily negative events and depressive symptoms in our
spective imagery, and impaired executive functioning veteran sample (Study 2), but not in our sample of young
(for a review, see Joormann & Arditte, 2014), which may adults (Study 1). This discrepant finding may be
626 Starr et al.

associated with the demographic differences of the two Theoretical Considerations, Future
samples. Previous research suggests that ED improves as Directions, and Conclusions
adults age, so that poor differentiation of NEs may confer
more risk for depressive symptoms in older adults Can emotion differentiation be
(Carstensen et al., 2000). This explanation is speculative, differentiated?
and future work will help to address if this difference
reflects the different demographics of the study samples. Notably, although research has typically assumed that
Low NED also predicted stronger associations between low ED scores reflect an inability to cognitively discrimi-
daily brooding and concurrent depressive symptoms. nate between emotions, they may also reflect a genuine
Coupled with the negative correlation between NED and propensity toward experiencing multiple emotions in
trait rumination, findings suggest that people with low clusters rather than individually. If so, perseverative focus
NED suffer a rumination “double whammy,” with a on one NE (through brooding) or PE (through savoring)
greater tendency toward rumination as well as greater may activate a network of related emotions, amplifying
depressive reactivity to it. A number of studies have sug- the affective experience and influencing depressive
gested that low NED is related to the selection and symptoms; likewise, positive and negative events may
deployment of ineffective or destructive coping strate- trigger a broader (and perhaps more intense) affective
gies. The current study is the first to show that maladap- response in individuals labeled as low emotion differen-
tive emotion regulation techniques also have more tiators. This may be one reason why the literature on
deleterious affective consequences among those with PED is somewhat mixed; low PED may actually be com-
low NED. Findings align with those of Zaki et al. (2013), posed of two counteractive components, one potentially
who showed that trait rumination was more predictive of beneficial (the propensity to experience multiple concur-
nonsuicidal self-injury in borderline personality disorder rent PEs) and one potentially maladaptive (deficient abil-
for those with low NED. People who have trouble under- ity to discern discrete emotional states). In contrast, low
standing their emotions may be more likely to get espe- NED may be more consistently maladaptive because
cially “stuck” when brooding about their NE, which may both the tendency to experience large clusters of NEs
lead the brooding to have more of a deleterious impact and the inability to differentiate these NEs are likely to
on effective problem solving. In contrast, it could be the have negative consequences (and may therefore have
case that those with high NED may be more effective at additive effects). Although our approach to assessing
identifying the source of their emotions, which may make NED and PED (using EMAs to calculate intraclass correla-
ruminative self-focus more productive and less impactful tions among momentary emotions) is a widely accepted
on depressive symptoms. method (Selby et al., 2014; Shrout & Fleiss, 1979; Tugade
Paralleling our NED findings, we also showed that, et  al., 2004), future researchers should develop tech-
across both samples, low PED enhanced the ameliorative niques that better discriminate between the experience
effects of both positive experiences and positive rumina- and the discernment of multiple concurrent emotions.
tion (savoring) on depressive symptoms. Most of the lim-
ited previous research on PED has focused on the role of
low PED in predicting problematic behaviors (e.g.,
Clinical implications
Dixon-Gordon et al., 2014; Selby et al., 2014); we showed Our findings on how NED and PED influence fluctua-
that low PED might be associated with adaptive out- tions of depressive symptoms in daily life may be helpful
comes in the context of depressive symptoms. Indeed, in increasing understanding of the dynamics of emotional
the extent to which low PED is harmful versus helpful experience in depression and inform the application of
may largely depend on the outcome being considered. effective treatment targets. Evidence has pointed toward
Among those with low PED, positive experiences may the efficacy of interventions that help individuals expand
trigger a wealth of PEs, rather than a specific, constrained their emotion vocabulary to better identify and precisely
emotion. In some contexts, these broad, undifferentiated label discrete emotions (Cameron, Payne, & Doris, 2013;
PEs may motivate and reinforce destructive behaviors Kircanski et  al., 2012). This approach, known as affect
(e.g., Dixon-Gordon et al., 2014; Selby et al., 2014). How- labeling, suggests that better recognizing and naming dis-
ever, in the context of depression, these PEs may moti- crete emotional states reduces emotional reactivity and
vate more behavioral activation, culminating in reduced maladaptive emotion regulation strategies (Lieberman
depressive symptoms. Thus, PED may have trade-offs; it et  al., 2007). This, in turn, may facilitate the ability to
may be protective in some clinical contexts while adding manage one’s behavior or distress in response to nega-
to vulnerabilities in others. That said, research on PED tive experiences, thereby reducing depressive symptoms.
remains very limited, and more investigation is decidedly Moreover, while working to improve NED, clinicians
needed. might help patients harness the effects of low PED as
Emotion Differentiation and Depressive Symptoms 627

they work to increase patients’ awareness of PE states a transdiagnostic factor that contributes to a range of psy-
and increased sensitivity to rewards, though future empir- chopathological conditions and behaviors including
ical work is needed to see if this could be a useful appli- depression, eating disorders, social anxiety disorder,
cation of our basic research findings. alcohol abuse, and aggression. In contrast, low PED may
have trade-offs for mental health, depending on the clini-
cal context. Future research is needed to better under-
Study limitations
stand the nature and consequences of these intriguing
When considered in isolation, each study has several constructs.
limitations. Study 1 utilized an undergraduate sample;
although participants were oversampled for depressive Author Contributions
symptoms, the pathology captured is likely a nonideal L. R. Starr and R. Hershenberg conceptualized the article col-
proxy for clinical depression. Study 1 also used a daily laboratively. L. R. Starr was principal investigator of Study 1,
diary design that relied on recall of experiences, perse- and R. Hershenberg was principal investigator of Study 2. L. R.
verative thought, mood, and symptoms over the course Starr conducted all analyses and led manuscript preparation.
of the day, and all analyses tested concurrent associa- R. Hershenberg, Y. I. Li, and Z. A. Shaw made substantial con-
tions. Study 2 relied on single-item measures and a rela- tributions to manuscript preparation. All authors approved the
tively small sample. However, these limitations were well final version of the manuscript for submission.
balanced across the two studies. Study 2 included a sam-
ple of veterans (a higher-risk population with a wider Acknowledgments
and older age range) and shorter interval EMA sampling We thank the members of our research team, particularly Fanny
which allowed lagged analyses; Study 1 included more Mlawer and Chistopher Anzalone, who managed data collec-
detailed daily measures, a larger sample, and a greater tion for Study 1, as well as the participants who generously
representation of women. Thus, the replication of results contributed their time. We thank Erin Wright and Sara Mooar
across the two studies provides greater confidence in for help with data collection, for Study 2 and Dorothy McDougall
findings. That said, several limitations remain across our and Joan Havey for administrative support, Christopher Petro
study as a whole. Although both studies oversampled for for technical support, and the veterans who generously partici-
pated in this research.
self-reported depressive symptoms, neither utilized clini-
cal interviews to assess clinical depression. Likewise, as
Study 1 utilized a college sample and Study 2 included a Declaration of Conflicting Interests
psychiatrically heterogeneous group of veterans, neither The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
sample can be considered exclusively representative of respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
major depression, and future research can help to estab-
lish if results generalize. Moreover, as explained previ- Funding
ously, our operationalization of ED cannot tease apart if Study 1 was completed with funds provided by the University
low ED reflects an inability to discriminate between emo- of Rochester. Study 2 was completed with funds provided by
tions or a genuine propensity to experience multiple the VISN 4 Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical
emotions concurrently. In addition, both studies relied on Center (MIRECC director D. Oslin) Pilot Project Funds, Corporal
the same emotion adjectives (derived from Bylsma et al., Michael J. Crescenz Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Philadel-
2011), which were not explicitly designed to assess ED phia, PA. The views expressed in the article are those of the
and may capture nondiscrete emotional states. Recent authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of
the Department of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. government.
evidence underscores the importance of careful selection
of emotion adjectives in momentary research, and this
should be an important consideration in future ED Notes
research. As noted previously, our design cannot deter- 1. For lagged analyses, we did not control for depressed mood
mine whether NED contributes to risk for depression or at signal t − 1 because including lagged dependent variables
simply emerges concomitant with symptoms. Finally, our as predictors in multilevel models introduces severe bias (see
measures of daily preservative self-focus, particularly Allison, 2015). To allow for a more conservative approach that
is appropriate within a multilevel framework, we also examined
savoring, were brief and may have conceptual overlap
whether the lagged model would remain significant after con-
with other related constructs (e.g., mindfulness), suggest- trolling for the concurrent model (see Starr & Davila, 2012b, for
ing that future research will benefit from testing the spec- an example of this approach). To do so, we included as predic-
ificity of these established associations. tors (in addition to the NED main effect, random effects, time,
Despite these limitations, the current study adds to a and other covariates) (a) unpleasant activities at t − 1, (b) NED ×
growing literature highlighting the importance of ED to unpleasant activities at t − 1, (c) unpleasant activities at t, and
emotional health. Indeed, evidence points to low NED as (d) NED × unpleasant activities at t. Terms (a) and (b) represent
628 Starr et al.

the lagged model, and terms (c) and (d) represent the concur- Clinical Psychology Review, 28, 676–691. doi:10.1016/j
rent model. The interaction terms for the concurrent model and .cpr.2007.10.001
the lagged model were both significant (concurrent p < .001, Bylsma, L. M., Taylor-Clift, A., & Rottenberg, J. (2011).
lagged p = .029). Although this approach may be unnecessar- Emotional reactivity to daily events in major and minor
ily conservative, the significance of the lagged model provides depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 120, 155–167.
greater confidence in the robustness of results. doi:10.1037/a0021662
2. As with the NED × unpleasant activities model, we again Cameron, C. D., Payne, B. K., & Doris, J. M. (2013). Morality in
reran lagged analyses using the very conservative approach of high definition: Emotion differentiation calibrates the influ-
controlling for concurrent main and interactive effects (see Note ence of incidental disgust on moral judgments. Journal of
1). The PED × pleasant activities interaction term was signifi- Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 719–725. doi:10.1016/j
cant for both the concurrent (p < .001) and lagged (p = .018) .jesp.2013.02.014
pleasant activity variables. Carstensen, L. L., Pasupathi, M., Mayr, U., & Nesselroade, J.
R. (2000). Emotional experience in everyday life across
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