Monday 15 February 2010

Negative Emotions

Why—it's a question that seems not to go away—do people pay money to watch films in which they know they will experience emotions that they avoid in ordinary life? Two recent papers reflect on the question.

Paul Silvia says aesthetics are usually about taking pleasure in things, for instance because they are beautiful. He offers what he calls a tour of unusual emotions that can't be grouped with pleasure. He describes three families of such emotions: knowledge emotions (interest, confusion, and surprise), hostile emotions (anger disgust and contempt), and self conscious emotions (pride, shame and embarrassment) which occur in fiction. About the self conscious emotions Sylvia says:
Understanding personal and collective feelings of pride, shame, guilt, regret, and embarrassment is central to a mature science of aesthetics, but our field knows so little about these emotions. Of the emotion families, self-consciousness emotions afford the most to researchers looking for untrod terrain (p. 50).
Silvia says the the field of aesthetics should have more to say about why people have these emotions in their encounters with the arts but, in this article, he does not offer an explanation of the paradox of people seeking the seemingly unpleasurable.

Norman Holland (2010) starts a brief piece in Psychology Today by discussing a horror film he saw recently. The film seemed designed to make him feel fear. He does come up with an explanation.
I think that fictionality (= non-acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads to pleasure. Actuality (= having to decide about acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads, not to pleasure, but to planning motor activity … I think that … knowing that we won't have to do anything [in fiction] … is in and of itself pleasurable.
It seems possible that being in an emotional state has enjoyable aspects to it. What is unpleasurable, according to Holland, are the possible consequences for our own life, and here emotions signal that we have to do something about them.

Film, in particular, is designed to lead us through sequences of emotional states. Murray Smith (1995) argues that the basis of these emotions is identification with characters. It is the characters who absorb our interest. It is with them that we become emotionally involved. Perhaps the root reason for our engagement with emotion is that because we are inherently social creatures we are fascinated by what can go on in the social world, for ourselves and others, be it positive or negative.

Norman Holland (2010). Why are there horror movies? Psychology Today, January 4.

Paul Silvia (2009). Looking past pleasure: anger, confusion, disgust, pride, surprise, and other unusual aesthetic emotions. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 48-51.

Murray Smith (1995). Engaging characters: Fiction, emotion, and the cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

I think it's very useful to think about the relationship between these two factors: self- consciousness (or perhaps if not "self consciousness" then "self-imaginings" in Kendall Walton's terminology) and the reader's inability to act within the fictional world. I would think that the second is likely a very important contributor to the first. I have to admit that I'm not convinced that "non-acting in response to an emotional stimulus" would be inherently pleasurable, but in certain cases could be so. I do see how this "non-acting" could make the reader more aware of herself and her emotions.

Mathias Clasen said...

Very interesting post, and an important question. It certainly is curious that a fairly crude film like Paranormal Activity, which was produced for $15,000, has grossed close to ten thousand times that amount, worldwide. Films (and stories in general) about drooling monsters, malevolent spirits and voices from beyond the grave capture the attention and imagination of millions of people around the globe. Maybe this has something to do with the pan-mammalian instinct to engage in play and exploratory behavior, to test the limits of one's moxie and vicariously expand one's experiential horizons? Maybe the pleasure that fictions elicit (pleasurable and horrible ones alike) is similar to the pleasure that play behavior elicits. That, at least, is the suggestion offered by Steen and Owens in their 2001 paper Evolution's Pedagogy (

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Rebecca and Mathias, for your comments. I think this question remains somewhat mysterious. As someone who generally avoids horror films, it is hard for me to think myself into why they are enjoyable to many people. Although Kendall Walton says that emotions aren't real because if they were were we would leave the cinema, I don't find this explanation convincing either; I have left the cinema in movies that I found aversive.

To me it seems that the best explanation of liking such emotions as fear and horror in fiction (and it has been put forward by many) is that we do look for closure and relief from negative emotions, and fiction generally does this more predictably than in everyday life.

Barbara M. said...

Need for affect is the "general motivation of people to approach or avoid situation or activities that are emotion inducing for themselves and others (Maio & Esses, 2001)." As such it predicts to what extent being in an emotional state has enjoyable aspects to it, as you wrote. Need for affect is proving as a key trait moderator of involvement in fiction and its consequent persuasiveness. The authors below researched in particular its role in the involvement in horror and drama films as discussed in this blogpost.

Bartsch, A., Appel, M. & Storch, D. (in press). Predicting emotions and meta-emotions at the movies. The role of the need for affect in audiences' experience of horror and drama. Communication Research.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Barbara, very much. I knew about the "need for cognition" scale, but not "need for affect." This certainly does sound interesting, particularly given—as you say—that it predicts responsiveness to certain kinds of fiction.

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