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Love to hate: new research explores the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception
New York, 14 March 2017: Throughout the visual arts, cinema, photography, theater, and opera, art of all forms can inspire and amaze - but highly popular art may also elicit feelings of sadness, disgust, or fear. A horror film that scares viewers witless, or a melancholic play that brings its audience to tears, will likely be considered a great success. But why do we enjoy - and actively seek out - art that scares us, makes us cry or otherwise induces negative emotion?
A new study by Menninghaus, director at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, and his colleagues, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, proposes a straightforward solution. It starts out from the finding that negative emotions are stronger than positive emotions precisely in what the arts strive for: capturing attention, securing intense emotional involvement, and access to memory. Hence the two are actual natural allies rather than, as widely believed, antipodes.
The proposed Distancing-Embracing model of the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception identifies two groups of processing mechanisms which allow the arts to recruit the powers of negative emotions without paying the price of becoming unenjoyable.
The first consists of psychological distancing mechanisms, which are activated along with the cognitive schemata of art, representation and fiction. These offer personal control, and safety in exposure to artworks. Importantly, however, they do not reduce levels of experienced negative emotions.
The cognitive distancing sets the stage for the second group of processing components. These allow individuals to positively embrace the powers of negative emotions in the art they consume. Ultimately, this positive adoption of negative emotions renders the experience of art more intense, more interesting, more emotionally moving, more profound, and often even more beautiful.
Compositional interplays of positive and negative emotions--and specifically mixed emotional states such as "being moved" and suspense--, play an important part in integrating negative emotions into overall pleasurable trajectories.
Habitual horror film viewers positively embrace not just emotional antidotes, such as happy endings and resolution, but the feelings of fear themselves. According to the model, this is possible, because these feelings of fear energize concomitant feelings of thrills, suspense and arousal which, in turn, allow for an oscillation between negative and positive valence.
Thus, the model departs from both compensation and conversion accounts of the seemingly "paradoxical" pleasure in negative emotions. It shows that the arts can positively embrace negative emotions as negative emotions--and thrive on their particular powers.
Menninghaus' article, The Distancing-Embracing model of the enjoyment of negative emotions in art reception, can be downloaded for free for a limited time until April 30, 2017. Click here for immediate access.
Notes to editors
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About Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) is the internationally renowned journal published by Cambridge University Press with the innovative format known as Open Peer Commentary. Particularly significant and controversial pieces of work are published from researchers in any area of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral biology or cognitive science, together with 20-40 commentaries on each article from specialists within and across these disciplines, plus the author's response to them.
The result is a fascinating and unique forum for the communication, criticism, stimulation, and particularly the unification of research in behavioral and brain sciences from molecular neurobiology to artificial intelligence and the philosophy of the mind.
About the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics
Founded in 2013, the institute is the only research institution wholly devoted to empirical research into basic mechanisms of aesthetic perception and evaluation and its functions for individuals and societies.
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