09. February 2016

Enjoy your anger!

[Translate to English:] Bäääh!<br>(Bild: Viewminder/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Scientists attempt to explain the enjoyment of negative emotions in art and entertainment experiences.

The arts and entertainment can trigger positive emotions. Yet why do people take pleasure in watching horror movies, reading tragedies, or experiencing other kinds of artistic works that elicit negative feelings? Which factors can account for this phenomenon? A group of scientists pursued this question.

Together with the Berlin theater ensemble "a rose is" scientists from Frankfurt and Berlin composed a modern theater performance entitled BrainCheck. One group consisted of audience members at the contemporary experimental theater festival 100 Grad (approximately translatable as “Boiling Point Festival”). The other group of participants was enlisted by a fake recruitment firm pretending to look for volunteers in order to evaluate a new cognitive aptitude test.

Valentin Wagner of the MPI for Empirical Aesthetics (Frankfurt a. M.), one of the responsible scientists, reports: “Both groups experienced the identical performance. A one-on-one situation between participant and actor. The performance was a potpourri of psychological aptitude tests and of experimental methods to induce anger. Importantly, the participants of both groups did not know that they actually participated in a scientific study.”

The theater audience thought to be part of an artistic performance, whereas the participants who were recruited via advertisement thought that they were undergoing a new cognitive aptitude test. All participants received the same unsolvable tasks, they were given wrong feedback and were frustrated and hassled by a gruff assistant who was played by a professional actor. As an integral part of the performance, self-reports of the current emotional state and blood pressure measurements were collected along the way. After the performance, a comprehensive follow-up survey was conducted.

Both measures—the self-reports as well as the physiological measurements—showed a reliable increase in anger during the performance. Importantly, for the theater audience this increase in annoyance was less strong. Furthermore, they experienced significantly more fun and interest than the participants of the “cognitive aptitude test” group and reported a much higher appreciation of the performance.

Original publication:

Wagner, V., Klein, J., Hanich, J., Shah, M., Menninghaus, W., & Jacobsen, T. (2015). Anger Framed: A Field Study on Emotion, Pleasure, and Art. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/aca0000029

See also https://vimeo.com/21399686 

More studies:

Wagner, V., Menninghaus, W., Hanich, J., & Jacobsen, T. (2014). Art schema effects on affective experience: The case of disgusting images. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(2), 120–129. doi:10.1037/a0036126  

Hanich, J., Wagner, V., Shah, M., Jacobsen, T., & Menninghaus, W. (2014). Why we like to watch sad films. The pleasure of being moved in aesthetic experiences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(2), 130–143. doi:10.1037/a0035690 


Dr. Valentin Wagner
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt am Main
+49 69 8300479-113