Arousal is commonly construed as the experience of restlessness, excitation, and agitation. It manifests itself in heightened overt and covert bodily activities that create a readiness for action. Acute states of such arousal characterize all vital emotions, and the subjective experience of these acute states is part and parcel of all strong feelings. Emotional arousal is consequently seen as an essential component of such experiences as pleasure and displeasure, sadness and happiness, love and hate, despair and elation, gaiety and dejection, rage and exultation, exhilaration and grief, frustration and triumph, merriment and fear, anger and joy, and so on.
Features common to all acute emotions are that their high arousal intensity is comparatively short-lived and that they show a strong focus on both causal circumstances and motivational implications. Moods are also considered affective or emotional states that are associated with elevated arousal states. In contrast to emotions, however, moods are typified by lower arousal intensities and longer periods of persistence. Additionally, whereas emotions are instigated by apparent causes and, in turn, instigate cause-determined actions, moods lack such focus and are marked by motivational diffuseness instead.
As both the evocation of emotions and the modification of moods are essential factors in the appeal and effects of media presentations, and as the intensity of both emotions and moods is largely determined by excitatory reactivity, it is imperative to consider arousal in the context of media influence.
Theories Of Arousal And Its Function In Emotion And Mood
In early theories of motivation and emotion, arousal has been treated as a unitary force, energizing behavior that receives direction by independent means. In behavior theory, arousal was likened to an engine that drives but does not guide overt actions. The necessary guidance was considered to result from impulses that are at any given time prepotent in the habit structure, this structure being partly determined by instinct but mostly established through learning.
Activation theory similarly construed arousal as the behavior energizer and considered some form of cognition accountable for behavior guidance. The theory focused on activities in the brainstem reticular formation. Measured in wave patterns and rhythms of the encephalogram, states ranging from coma through sleep, drowsiness, relaxed wakefulness, and alert attentiveness to strong, excited emotions were distinguished and used to map emotion intensity.
In a two-factor theory of emotion, Schachter (1964) adopted the emerging dichotomy of energization by arousal and guidance by cognition. As some of the research conducted in connection with the theory involved the injection of epinephrine, an adrenal hormone that activates sympathetic excitation, arousal was implicitly operationalized as heightened sympathetic-nervous-system activity. Schachter focused on both the intero-and exteroception of arousal as emotion determinants (e.g., heart pounding, palm sweating) and suggested that this feedback indicates the intensity of feelings. He further argued that the feedback-mediated awareness of a state of arousal instigates an epistemic search for the causes of the reactions, and that the resultant cognitive appraisal of the causal circumstances allows individuals to comprehend the particular feelings or emotions they are experiencing.
Zillmann (1996) proposed a three-factor theory of emotion that retains the distinction between energization by arousal and guidance by cognition. However, in order to explain the origin of arousal reactions, this being left unaddressed in Schachter’s theory, the guidance function is divided into a dispositional and an experiential component. The dispositional factor integrates ontogenetically fixed and acquired dispositions in accounting for the autonomic mediation of excitatory reactivity and the guidance of immediate, deliberate, overt behaviors. The experiential factor entails the cognitive evaluation of prevailing circumstances, including the appraisal of bodily feedback. In case these appraisals indicate inappropriate reactivity, this factor functions as a corrective by redirecting overt behavior and also, as far as possible, by initiating the regulation of autonomic activity.
Three-factor theory incorporates the conception of emergency emotions that implicates sympathetic dominance in the autonomic nervous system with the function of providing energy for an episode of vigorous action as needed for fight or flight. Although the conditions of modern life render most fight/flight reactions inappropriate, information about nonimmediate threats to personal welfare, or about non-immediate opportunities for its enhancement, still generates strong arousal reactions that are meant to energize immediate emergency-resolving action. These strong arousal reactions become linked to all basic emotions and determine their behavioral intensity and the intensity of associated experiences.
Sympathetic arousal of both emotions and moods is controlled by brain structures integrated in the limbic system (LeDoux 1996). The episodic versus tonic arousal supply of emotions and moods is more directly mediated by different endocrine mechanisms. The high excitatory intensity of emotions is primarily a function of activity in the sympathetic adrenomedullary system with its release of catecholamines. In contrast, the low excitatory intensity of moods is primarily mediated by activity in the pituitary adrenocortical system with its release of cortical steroids. Activity in the pituitary gonadal axis with its release of gonadal steroids is likely to assist the excitatory function of both these systems (Henry 1986).
Sensation Seeking And Consequences Of Emotions In Media Communication
The state of acute bodily arousal that accompanies intensely felt emotions is hedonically ambiguous and therefore liberally interpretable. When connected with fear, for instance, experienced sympathetic arousal is bound to be construed as unpleasant. When the same kind of arousal is linked to triumph, however, it will intensify the experience of genuine pleasure. Despite this hedonic plasticity of arousal, or perhaps because of it, its accumulation to extreme levels is often sought and the experience valued in its own right.
Intense excitement is sought via exposure to the communication media as much as through overt individual or social actions. The fact that the evocation of diverse emotions can be compacted in media presentations or in interactive media formats, such as games, actually provides optimal conditions for the creation of arousal escalations and, ultimately, for intense experiences of joyous excitement (Zillmann 2006).
Tannenbaum (1980), in pondering the tendency to maximize arousal for pleasure, placed the experience of intense arousal in juxtaposition to boredom, a state characterized by minimal arousal levels, and then proposed that essentially any jolt of arousal would be appreciated and hence sought out by persons living in the comparatively secure and often hapless environments of modern times.
Zuckerman (1979) elaborated this consideration, arguing that humans, like other primates, are genetically prepared to cope with aversive conditions on a regular basis, but that modern life deprives them of opportunities. He focused on a need for stimulation, essentially an inclination to seek out challenges, as an individual difference variable in order to explain why some persons are more driven than others to jump from airplanes, climb cliffs, do drugs, listen to deafening music, or watch horror movies. In Zuckerman’s conceptual framework, stimulation is sought for its excitatory quality. Although such stimulation may be noxious on occasion or even most of the time, the dominant sensation of attained excitement is deemed to be one of pleasure. It seems more likely that, as arousing challenges are overcome, their termination will give impetus to pleasurable reactivity, and that the intensity of this reactivity increases with the severity of overcome challenges.
In contrast to Tannenbaum’s and Zuckerman’s contentions, the theory of excitation transfer does not stipulate the seeking of arousal for its own sake but explains any buildup of arousal as the unavoidable accumulation of remaining portions from preceding arousal reactions (Zillmann 1996). Independent of the hedonic valence that may be linked to particular arousal reactions, residual sympathetic excitation from earlier reactions combines and ultimately intensifies later experiences in the progression of emotional response. If a later reaction is appraised as pleasant, an intensified euphoric reaction will be experienced. If the later reaction is deemed unpleasant, an experience of displeasure will be intensified, instead.
In this conceptual framework, noxious arousal is not sought for its immediate experiential quality. Rather, such arousal is accepted as a necessary prelude to intense joyous reactions that are evoked by the resolution of distressing events, and it is the stimulation package featuring both challenge and its triumphant management that is sought out. The phenomenon of suspense in drama, sports, reality programs, and the news, as well as in the drama of daily life, generalizes this particular “dramatic” conversion. The appeal of media violence has been similarly explained as due to terror arousal that intensifies the satisfaction experienced in the justice-restoring heroics of concluding events (Sparks & Sparks 2000).
Arousal influences permeate numerous other effects of media exposure too. It has been shown, for instance, that exposure to highly arousing pleasant erotica can facilitate social aggression more than can somewhat less arousing exposure to violence. Such findings have called into question the sole focus on media content in the creation of behavioral effects and fostered a reorientation that demands the consideration of excitatory circumstances.
An illustration of arousal consequences other than emotion enhancement is, for example, the arousal-induced attention deficit concerning events unrelated to the specific arousal instigation. It has been observed that, within a newscast, reports that follow emotionally disturbing reports receive little attention and are poorly processed as a result. During states of acute arousal, the limited capacity for information processing is apparently preoccupied with the witnessed events that caused that state.
As the hedonic quality of mood also depends on the cognitive appraisal of the prevailing circumstances, mood changes are analogously subject to transfer enhancement. Although residual amounts of arousal from earlier moods may be comparatively small, they should nonetheless elevate the experience of different, newly materializing moods. During low arousal states of boredom, for instance, exposure to arousing dramatic programs as well as to arousing musical selections is generally preferred to exposure to less arousing stimulation. Immediate arousal supplementation is apparently an effective way to normalize and improve mood.
Mood manipulation may also serve opposite ends, however. Tranquil environments, real or mediated, are capable of dissolving arousal and thereby relax noxious tensions from preceding emotional experiences. Deliberate exposure to calming media presentations can thus remove the possibility of arousal from undesirable emotions and moods. The indicated ameliorating effect was observed, for instance, in viewers who had watched a distressing newscast. The aroused viewers expressed grievous concerns about the issues addressed in the news. Their concerns greatly diminished, however, by the intervening exposure to an emotionally calming report. The dissipation of arousal is apparently capable of reducing the intensity of apprehensions and fears. This effect seems to be well understood by news programmers, as news programs routinely conclude with light-hearted news items.
- Henry, J. P. (1986). Neuroendocrine patterns of emotional response. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (eds.), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience, vol. 3: Biological foundations of emotion. Orlando, FL: Academic Press, pp. 37– 60.
- LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Schachter, S. (1964). The interaction of cognitive and physiological determinants of emotional state. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, vol. 1. New York: Academic Press, pp. 49 – 80.
- Sparks, G. G., & Sparks, C. W. (2000). Violence, mayhem, and horror. In D. Zillmann & P. Vorderer (eds.), Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 73 – 91.
- Tannenbaum, P. H. (1980). Entertainment as vicarious emotional experience. In P. H. Tannenbaum (ed.), The entertainment functions of television. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 107–131.
- Zillmann, D. (1996). Sequential dependencies in emotional experience and behavior. In R. D. Kavanaugh, B. Zimmerberg, & S. Fein (eds.), Emotion: Interdisciplinary perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 243 –272.
- Zillmann, D. (2006). Dramaturgy for emotions from fictional narration. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (eds.), Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 215 –238.
- Zuckerman, M. (1979). Beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.