February 3, 2013

Anger and Sadness in Response to an Emotionally Neutral Film: Evidence for Age-Specific Associations With Well-Being

Anger and Sadness in Response to an Emotionally Neutral Film: Evidence for Age-Specific Associations With Well-Being

Claudia M. Haase and Benjamin H. Seider

University of California, Berkeley

Michelle N. ShiotaArizona 

State University

Robert W. Levenson

University of California, Berkeley


Background:


1) “Negative emotions” such as anger, sadness, fear and disgust are often conceptualized as maladaptive. But they actually serve useful functions.
2) Anger enhances control over a situation of threat, sadness facilitates the devaluation of an unattainable goal, fear serves as a defense response to threat and disgust as a protection from contamination/infection.
3) From a life course perspective, fear and disgust are always crucial, however the adaptiveness of anger and sadness change over time.
4) Middle aged people have a lot of control over their environment and for them anger is an adaptive emotion.
5) Older people experience significant decline in their ability to select and pursue goals and as a result sadness is a functionally useful emotion for them.

Hypotheses:
1) The experience of anger in response to an emotionally ambiguous video in middle aged but not older or younger adults will be associated with greater well-being.
2) The experience of sadness in response to an emotionally ambiguous video in the older group of adults but not other groups will be associated with greater well-being.
3) These effects will not generalize to fear and disgust.
4) The relationship between sadness and well being in older people will be specific to sadness in response to an emotionally ambiguous video and not to an unambiguously sad video.

Method
1) Subjects consists of young (20-29) middle aged (40-49) and older (60-69) adults.
2) Subjects watch emotionally ambiguous movies and unambiguously sad or disgusting movies.
3) Subjects rate post movie emotional response.
4) Analyses control for pre-movie emotional level and physiological reactivity to movie.
5) Well being is measured by a life satisfaction questionnaire and by the ratio of positive to negative emotions. Sample items on the questionnaire “I am satisfied with my life” postivie and negative emotions are measured with the PANAS.

Results
1) In middle aged adults greater anger in response to emotionally neutral movie is associated with higher well-being.
2) This effect is specific to anger and not other emotions elicited by this or other movies.
3) In older adults greater sadness in response to the neutral movies is associated with greater well-being.
4) This effect is specific to sadness and not other emotions elicited by this movie.
5) This effect is specific to sadness in response to the neutral movie and not to sadness in response to the clearly sad movie.
6) Findings are stronger and generally only significant when responses to the the life satisfaction questionnaire are used as the dependent variable. Findings are at trend level or not significant when the ratio of positive to negative emotions is used as DV.

Discussion
1) Anger facilitates greater control beliefs and behaviors and is adaptive in people who actually have control.
2) Sadness facilitates disconnection from valued goals and is adaptive in people who need to accept their diminishing control over their environment.

Questions and comments:
1) They make a big point about the importance of using emotionally ambiguous stimulus but not an emotionally unambiguous stimulus. Why does this matter? If sadness is adaptive in older people, why is it important whether that sadness is evoked by an ambiguous or unambiguous stimulus? The authors never actually explain why they use emotionally ambiguous stimuli.
2) More broadly, what I found so compelling about the article is the use of an emotionally ambiguous stimulus. In the article they compare their neutral movies to the Rorschach cards. For anyone who is studying emotion it begs the question, what do we lose when we use stimuli that demand a specific emotional response and what can be gained by using emotionally ambiguous stimuli? Conversely, what does emotional response to an emotionally ambiguous stimulus actually measure? Is it emotional tone, personality, cognitive bias/distortion or ….projection?
3) I thought it was interesting that their findings were significant for the life satisfaction DV but not for the ratio of positive to negative emotions DV, thoughts on this?
4) The article rests on the theory that well-being is associated with congruence between your emotional state and your control opportunities. Meaning, that old people who get sad easily will be happier because they will accept their decreasing control over their life. I could imagine many an older person disagreeing with this. Do you agree with this congruence theory?
5) I loved the functional explanations of negative emotions and I am certain that these will be helpful tools to use in therapy. Has anyone ever employed that type of approach i.e. functional sadness or anger…how did you do it, what was it like?

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