Psychology Research News

One interesting aspect of aesthetic experiences is that negative emotions can sometimes be enjoyed. Think for example of the pleasure listening to sad music can provide. Consider contemporary art exhibitions which often have left the path of beauty in favor of demanding, disturbing, or negative emotional content. Nonetheless such exhibitions attract and are enjoyed by thousands of visitors. Whereas enjoyment of negative emotions in these examples is a well-documented phenomenon, emotion priming studies, whereby the emotional content of a prime stimulus influences the evaluation of a subsequent target stimulus, have shown conflicting results, reporting both higher and lower liking after negative primes. These divergences may be driven by key differences in the priming procedures.
Specifically, past studies’ use of emotional faces and emotional scenes as primes, differing negative emotion content (fear, disgust), as well as different priming durations may involve differing processes, leading to opposing effects in aesthetic judgments. To differentiate among these, this research presented emotional primes (20 ms) consisting of either emotional faces or scenes, further subdivided in disgusting, fearful, positive or neutral content and tested how aesthetic liking was affected. Additionally, non-verbal indicators of emotion processing by measuring facial electromyography were employed, to see whether primes would elicit prime-emotion congruent changes. However, facial electromyography indicated no prime congruent changes. Critically, primes influenced aesthetic judgments of the abstract target patterns in an emotion congruent manner for both prime types – emotional faces and emotional scenes. Abstract targets were liked more after positive primes and less after negative disgust or fear primes. The similarity of priming effects for both prime types in absence of congruent changes in facial electromyography may suggest that priming exerts its influence via a cognitive rather than a more immediate emotional route. Overall-at least in emotional priming-negative emotions seem to be incompatible with higher liking.
This research was conducted and started by Dr. Gernot Gerger while working at the Empirical Visual Aesthetics Lab, Faculty of Psychology, at the University of Vienna. Dr. Gerger joined Webster Vienna Private University last May and finalized the research article at Webster Vienna. Dr. Gergers’ main research focus lies in understanding how emotions and cognitions interact in forming human evaluations with a specific focus on the contributions of non-verbal indicators of behavior. At the moment Dr. Gerger works as a post-doctoral researcher in the FWF funded project: Exploring and explaining misrecognitive discrimination: field and laboratory experiments (SEDICE) awarded to Dr. Marc Mehu. The main aim of this project is to uncover non-verbal indicators of discriminatory behavior in real life and lab settings.