The term “mood management” stands for a theory that aims to predict people’s choices from media messages. The audience is confronted with an enormous diversity of media channels and messages, thus selectivity in media use is inevitable. Hence, a classic key question in communication research is what drives the choices made by media users.
Mood-management theory (Zillmann 1988) has been proposed by Zillmann and Bryant and was initially called the theory of affect-dependent stimulus arrangement (Zillmann & Bryant 1985). The core suggestion is that media users’ moods have a strong influence on media content choices because the individual aims to manage or, more specifically, optimize his or her feeling state. This motivation then drives what media content is selected, as different messages produce different effects on mood. This proposed pattern pertains to all media channels and genre types such as news, music, movies, and online content – even a documentary film can be employed to enhance mood as the current “frame of mind.”
Mood-management processes involve three dimensions on which the individual’s feeling state can be described and that are also linked to mood-enhancing media choices (Zillmann 2000, 104): “the indicated hedonistic objective is best served by selective exposure to material that (a) is excitationally opposite to prevailing states associated with noxiously experienced hypoor hyperarousal, (b) has positive hedonic value above that of prevailing states, and (c) in hedonically negative states, has little or no semantic affinity with the prevailing states”.
The first dimension relates to regulation of stress and boredom. Media messages are excellent means of lowering arousal. For instance, most people will find watching a peaceful wildlife documentary relaxing. On the other hand, many types of media content are designed to heighten arousal; for example, fast-paced rock music typically has this effect and might even be chosen for a workout for that reason. Hence, depending on current arousal level and the personal appraisal thereof, media users select relaxing or exciting content. When stressed from work, choosing an innocuous comedy might help to unwind, a movie type that could be considered lame under other circumstances of mood. In contrast, after a boring uneventful day, many will turn to a suspenseful thriller for some excitation.
The second dimension of mood valence looks at whether the media user is in a positive or negative mood. Negative feeling states call for improvement through selective media use, for example by watching a movie with a “guaranteed” happy ending. When in positive moods, media users will try to maintain that state by choosing content that does not disrupt it and reinforces it instead. However, concerns have been raised (e.g., Knobloch-Westerwick 2006; also Zillmann 2000) because the theory seems incommensurate with any selective exposure to decidedly sad content, e.g., tragedies like the movie Titanic or Holocaust documentaries.
Finally, pertaining to the semantic affinity dimension, when in a negative feeling state, the individual will avoid all media portrayals that remind him or her of the source of the ongoing distress. For example, a student who has just failed badly at an exam (and cares about it) should avoid watching a campus comedy, according to mood-management theory. Even though the general tone of such a movie would be uplifting, under circumstances of stress caused by campus-related events, that association would ruin the amusement and thus not serve mood optimization.
Media Features Relevant For Making Choices
Mood-management theory outlines the characteristics of media messages that are relevant for choices. The excitatory potential of a message relates to its capacity to either increase or decrease arousal levels. For example, fast-paced music typically has a high excitatory potential, whereas slow-paced music is usually low on that dimension.
The absorption potential may have some overlap with the first aspect, yet does not fully converge with it. For example, a newscast with many display elements in the style of CNN Headlines is more absorbing than a more traditional newscast with just a news anchor and very few additional elements. The former type may be preferable for enhancing a negative mood, simply by distraction.
Furthermore, very much related to the aspects of media users’ moods, the hedonic valence of media content will obviously affect whether it will be selected or avoided, depending on prevailing feeling state. The hedonic valence characteristic can be easily explained with some news stories – large-scale disasters such as the tsunami catastrophe in 2005 will be unanimously considered bad news and depressing, whereas reports about a newly found cure for a frequent and deadly disease are good news to most of us and might brighten our day.
Lastly, the semantic affinity is an aspect of the message that is very much related to the individual’s perspective and assessment of his or her situation. When the current mood is positive, semantic affinity might actually be welcome. For instance, a teenager who is happily enamored might especially prefer watching a movie about a happy romance. In contrast, a teenager in unrequited love will avoid this movie type as rubbing salt into open wounds, and instead might actually go for an action thriller without any connections to the cause of personal misery.
Although mood-management theory is applicable to choices of any media content type, it has gained the most prominence in the context of entertainment exposure. In fact, it can be seen as the overarching theory for the entertainment context (Knobloch-Westerwick 2006) that can explain why we turn to a great variety of different entertainment media, designed to play on our emotions, and furthermore offers specific predictions about actual choices.
Selected Research Findings
In the following, some selected research findings from the mood-management framework are presented. In a classic study, Bryant and Zillmann (1984) induced different levels of stress in their participants by having them perform tedious mechanical tasks or challenging test assignments under time pressure. Then, in a purportedly unrelated situation, participants were free to ‘surf ’ some television channels on which pre-categorized programs, being either high or low in their excitatory potential, were shown. The TV set provided was set up to record the choices unobtrusively. The selective exposure patterns clearly differed according to induced stress level. The stressed participants spent more time on soothing programs, whereas the bored individuals allotted more time to the exciting programs.
Meadowcroft and Zillmann (1987) examined whether the menstrual cycle influenced women’s reported preferences for TV genres. In a survey, female college students indicated their intention to watch various TV programs, presented in a list, on the same evening. At the end of the questionnaire, they were asked to report information regarding their menstrual cycle. Premenstrual and menstrual women showed higher interest in comedy than other females in the midst of their cycle. The authors concluded that women aim to overcome noxious mood states, resulting from hormonal phases, by watching comedy. Helregel and Weaver (1989) presented parallel results for mood states during pregnancy.
Anderson et al. (1996) examined questions that go beyond the original mood-management claims but are very much in line with the overall perspective. These researchers conducted a field experiment in which participants reported stressful events and also recorded their television consumption. This field dataset revealed that stress resulted in longer TV consumption. Stressed participants furthermore spent more time on TV entertainment, such as comedy, while neglecting news and documentaries under such circumstances. Apparently, entertainment programs hold more promise to counteract such negatively experienced arousal levels. Men and women differed in their choices when under stress – stressed women watched more game shows and variety programs, while stressed men preferred action programs.
Knobloch and Zillmann (2002) used yet another research design by conducting a computer-based experiment. The first part consisted of an ostensible test with bogus feedback and actually served as an induction of moods of difference valence. In the second part, respondents were asked to select from current pop songs available on the computer while exposure was recorded by software. As expected, participants who had received the pre-assigned negative test feedback spent more time with joyful, energetic music than participants who had received more positive feedback and who were thus in better moods. These more positive moods obviously made efforts to enhance the feeling state through consumption of joyful music less relevant.
Potentials And Limits Of The Approach
This review shows that the overall notions of mood-management theory have been supported by a variety of research designs. Additional studies have examined selective exposure to news and world wide web content. More recently, the mood-adjustment approach, an extension of the theory, has been proposed by Knobloch-Westerwick (Knobloch 2003; Knobloch-Westerwick & Alter 2006).
This perspective suggests that we do not always aim to optimize our mood but sometimes try to instigate a mood that we consider appropriate or desirable in a given or anticipated situation. For example, when preparing for a sports competition, an athlete might not listen to a song that would distract him or her from the upcoming stressful situation, although not thinking about the competition would probably be more enjoyable. Instead music that actually helps to focus on the event might be preferred in the interest of better performance. Such exposure patterns are also likely to change across time, as the anticipated event approaches. Indeed, in an empirical investigation, music exposure across time of those participants who anticipated a tedious task after a musiclistening period differed significantly from listening choices of those who anticipated a joyful game (Knobloch 2003). Apparently, the anticipation of different upcoming situations instigated different efforts at adjusting one’s mood to them.
Overall, mood-management theory is a key perspective in media effects and selective exposure research. Empirical evidence for it has accumulated over the years. Some criticism has emerged because of difficulties in explaining selective exposure to upsetting content such as tragedy or horror. Furthermore, in its beautiful parsimony, mood-management theory does not offer straightforward explanations for the commonly found gender differences in media choices and in studies investigating the theory (Knobloch-Westerwick 2007).
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- Bryant, J., & Zillmann, D. (1984). Using television to alleviate boredom and stress: Selective exposure as a function of induced excitational states. Journal of Broadcasting, 28(1), 1–20.
- Helregel, B. K., & Weaver, J. B. (1989). Mood-management during pregnancy through selective exposure to television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 33(1), 15 –33.
- Knobloch, S. (2003). Mood adjustment via mass communication. Journal of Communication, 53(2), 233 –250.
- Knobloch, S., & Zillmann, D. (2002). Mood management via the digital jukebox. Journal of Communication, 52(2), 351–366.
- Knobloch-Westerwick, S. (2006). Mood management: Theory, evidence, and advancements. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), The psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 239 –254.
- Knobloch-Westerwick, S. (2007). Gender differences in selective media use for mood management and mood adjustment. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 51, 1–20.
- Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Alter, S. (2006). Mood adjustment to social situations through mass media use: How men ruminate and women dissipate angry moods. Human Communication Research, 32, 58 –73.
- Meadowcroft, J. M., & Zillmann, D. (1987). Women’s comedy preferences during the menstrual cycle. Communication Research, 14(2), 204 –218.
- Zillmann, D. (1988). Mood management through communication choices. American Behavioral Scientist, 31(3), 327–340.
- Zillmann, D. (2000). Mood management in the context of selective exposure theory. In M. F. Roloff (ed.), Communication Yearbook 23. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 103 –123.
- Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1985). Affect, mood, and emotion as determinants of selective exposure. In D. Zillmann & J. Bryant (eds.), Selective exposure to communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 157–190.