The theory of excitation transfer addresses sequential dependencies in emotional reactivity. Specifically, it predicts an enhancement of emotional reactions to immediately present emotion-arousing situations by portions of excitation that are left over from preceding related or unrelated emotion-arousing situations. The theory operationalizes excitation primarily as dominance of sympathetic activity in the autonomic nervous system and treats this activity as the main determinant of the intensity of emotional behavior and experience (Zillmann 1983, 1996). Excitation transfer theory was initially advanced and tested to explain emotional reactivity in immediate social interactions. It equally applies, however, to emotional reactivity evoked by exposure to communication. Excitation transfer may be created by emotions from message exposure and affect emotions in social interactions, be created by emotions from social interactions and affect emotions from message exposure, and be both created by and affect emotions from message exposure (Zillmann 2006).
Asynchrony In Cognitive And Excitatory Reactivity In Emotion
Excitation transfer theory is based on marked differences in the time course of cognitive and excitatory adaptation to changes in conditions that arouse emotions. Cognitive adjustment to situational changes is quasi-instantaneous because of the exceedingly fast neural mediation of cognition. In contrast, the hormonal mediation of sympathetic excitation via the cardiovascular system is lethargic, and excitatory adjustment to situational changes occurs only after considerable passage of time. For most practical purposes, the latency of excitatory reactivity is negligible, but the so-called regulation of excitation – i.e., the homeostatic ally controlled return of excitation to normal levels – is not. Elevated sympathetic excitation, once produced, dissipates slowly, usually over the course of several minutes. In the case of extreme excitatory reactivity, recovery may take an hour or more, and a variety of related or unrelated emotional reactions that occur prior to complete recovery may be affected by the persisting residues of excitation.
Emotion Intensification By Excitation Transfer As A Consequence Of Asynchrony
The consequence of this time discrepancy in cognitive and excitatory adjustment is that residues of sympathetic excitation linger and intensify emotional behavior and experience for some time after cognitive adjustment to a novel situation has occurred. It is therefore expected that, whenever particular circumstances instigate an emotional reaction at a time when portions of excitation are left over from preceding emotions, the composite of newly instigated and residual excitation will foster emotional reactivity whose intensity is greater than that specific to the new instigation alone. Residual excitation may thus be considered to have “artificially” intensified the newly triggered emotion. In terms of emotional intensity, the strengthened reaction amounts to an over-reaction.
Excitation transfer theory treats sympathetic excitation as hedonically neutral. The function of this excitation is to energize the organism to act on vital conditions. Pleasure or displeasure associated with such actions is determined by cognitive processes and their hormonal concomitants in the central nervous system. As a result, residual sympathetic excitation from pleasurable emotions can intensify noxious emotions and residual sympathetic excitation from noxious emotions can intensify pleasurable emotions. Emotion intensification by residual sympathetic excitation can also occur, however, within sequences of either pleasurable or noxious reactions. For the projection of transfer effects, then, the hedonic valence of preceding and subsequent emotions is immaterial.
The Roots Of Excitation Transfer In Emotion
The expectation that residual excitation from preceding emotions readily combines with excitation to later instigated emotions entails the assumption that heightened sympathetic activity is common to all essential emotions. This assumption derives from evolutionary theories that construe emotions as reactions designed to resolve behavioral emergencies. Emotions that serve the indicated function require bursts of energy for immediate vigorous action, and it is such energy that heightened sympathetic activity provides. In situations of acute danger, for example, early humans needed to be able to alternate quickly between fight and flight reactions, both of which demanded high energy levels. Similarly high levels were also needed during sexual pursuits and in other vital quests.
As neither the emotion-controlling limbic brain structures nor the autonomic nervous system have undergone appreciable changes during recent millennia, the evolutionary consideration of human emotions leads to the conclusion that, in our times, excited emotions are still being triggered by circumstances of consequence. The energizing reactions occur despite the fact that nowadays adaptive actions do usually not require bursts of energy and that such energization may often prove counter-productive in fostering unreasonable, nonadaptive actions. Considering the transfer of excitation from emotion to emotion specifically, the evolutionary rationale projects that the combination of emotion-intensifying excitation is primarily one of compatible elements of sympathetic excitation. It further suggests that, as awareness of combining energetic resources could only distract from urgent behavioral objectives, the specifics of excitatory integration generally elude cognizance.
A Case Illustration Of Excitation Transfer
Imagine a woman who steps on a snake in the grass of her backyard. Deep-rooted survival mechanisms, organized in the brain’s limbic system, will be activated and make her jump back and scream. A rush of adrenaline will have been released alongside to elevate sympathetic excitation. Following these initial reactions, the woman is bound to construe her emotional behavior as fear and panic. She might also notice herself shaking and thus realize that she is greatly excited. Upon looking once more at the object of her terror, she recognizes, however, that the snake is a rubber dummy, planted by her mischievous son, who enters the scene laughing his head off.
This recognition, a result of instant cognitive adjustment to changing circumstances, proves her initial emotion of fear groundless and calls for a new interpretation of her experiential state. Still shaking from the scare, she is likely to feel acute anger toward her son. In her infuriation she might even lash out at him. But after fully comprehending the prank, she might consider anger to be inappropriate, and cognitively adjust once more, this time joining in his laughter and appraising her experience as amusement. Throughout this cognitive switching from experiential state to state, the excitatory reaction to the detected danger in the grass persisted to varying degrees. It initially determined the intensity of the fear reaction. The left-over excitation from this reaction then intensified the emotion of volatile anger and, thereafter, the experience of amusement in fits of hysterical laughter. In short, residual excitation fostered over-reactions in a string of different emotions.
Excitation Transfer In Situationally Evoked Emotions
The facilitation of primary emotions by residual sympathetic excitation from prior emotional reactions has been demonstrated in numerous experiments. In these investigations, an initial emotion is elicited to provide excitation for transfer, and an immediately following one is evoked to receive the excitation transfer and be intensified by it. In both emotions, excitatory reactivity is ascertained, usually in peripheral manifestations such as blood pressure and heart rate. This assessment focuses on the magnitude of transferred residual excitation. Cognitive reactivity is ascertained alongside to ensure the experiential quality of the emotions. Finally, the intensity of the subsequent, focal emotion is recorded in expressive and behavioral manifestations.
Using this research paradigm, it has been demonstrated, for instance, that excitatory residues from acute sexual excitedness can intensify such diverse emotions as anxious apprehensions, anger, aggressive behavior, altruistic inclination, and help rendering.
Conversely, residues from noxious emotions such as fear have been found to intensify sexual attraction to viable partners. But residual excitation may also come from emotionally neutral sources. Residues from strenuous physical exercise were found to facilitate anger and aggressiveness, this in accordance with the prevailing magnitude of the slowly dissipating residual excitation. Excitatory residues from neutral sources were also found capable of enhancing sexual excitement and amorous inclinations (cf. Zillmann 1996).
Research on the relationship between fear and joy similarly shows that excitatory residues from acute fear intensify the experience of pleasure upon the cessation of fear. Newcomers to parachuting, for example, showed considerable apprehension before jumping, but also the greatest joy upon landing. As jumping became routine and fear diminished, the experience of joy, no longer invigorated by appreciable amounts of measured sympathetic excitation, faded away along with the fear (Klausner 1967).
Investigations addressing yet other constellations of emotions give further evidence of the excitation-transfer intensification of primary emotions that are evoked in social situations or by environmental challenge (Zillmann 1996).
Excitation Transfer In Communication-Mediated Emotions
The transfer facilitation of feelings and emotions evoked by exposure to media presentations has been examined within the same research paradigm. It has been shown, for instance, that residual sympathetic excitation from pleasant emotions, such as sexual excitedness, or unpleasant emotions, such as disgust and dejection, can enhance the subsequent enjoyment of music (Cantor & Zillmann 1973), the appreciation of humorous presentations (Cantor et al. 1974), and feelings of sadness in response to happenings featured in motion pictures (Zillmann et al. 1974). Hedonically neutral residues from physical exercise, moreover, were found capable of enhancing favorable affective reactions to televised commercials (Mattes & Cantor 1982).
The application of excitation transfer theory to communication-mediated emotions is not limited to presentations that are composed of independent reports or programs. The news, for instance, commonly presents an admixture of unrelated, differently arousing reports. For such aggregations it must be expected that arousing reports leave much undecayed sympathetic excitation behind for the immediately following, potentially entirely unrelated reports. Affective reactions to these subsequent reports thus should be enhanced by the excitatory residues from the preceding reports. A highly exciting documentary may analogously enhance reactions to material presented in its aftermath.
For example, an emotionally upsetting report about a tribal massacre in a developing country, being followed without delay by a report about an expanding avian flu epidemic, is likely to enhance felt concerns about the flu and foster increased assessments of the risk of contracting it. In the reverse direction, a preceding fear-arousing report about a flu epidemic should intensify feelings of terror and revulsion in response to a subsequent report about a massacre. Facilitatory effects may also cross the hedonic divide, however. After learning of a glorious victory by a supported sports team and basking in reflected glory, the report of a stock-market debacle may strike one as being especially severe and damaging to economic interests; and after learning of such a debacle and feeling miserable accordingly, the report of a glorious win by the supported team may prove extraordinarily exhilarating.
Excitation transfer theory applies analogously to the aggregation of singular events within a report or story. Successions of differently arousing events regularly occur in news programs, but are most characteristic of entertaining storytelling. The undisrupted presentational compression of scenes of limited duration defines, in fact, a unique forum for excitation transfer because excitatory reactions are, as a rule, not allowed to decay. Unlike in situations that permit interruptions, information intake in audiovisual presentations is continuous. New scenes are presented and cognitively assimilated before appreciable excitatory decay can manifest itself. Under these conditions, residual excitation is bound to enter into and enhance reactions to scenes that immediately follow arousing ones.
An excitation transfer variant of interest is the simultaneous presentation of differently arousing events in a message. The transfer expectation is that the more arousing part of the message will intensify emotional reactivity to the less arousing part and, to a lesser degree, vice versa. This expectation was confirmed, for example, in an investigation of the enjoyment of music presented in music videos (Zillmann & Mundorf 1987). The musicaccompanying imagery was manipulated, featuring either highly arousing violent scenes, highly arousing erotic scenes, or unarousing innocuous scenes. The music was additionally presented without the accompaniment of imagery. In accordance with excitation transfer expectations, the identical music was experienced as more enjoyable when accompanied by arousing imagery than when accompanied by either unarousing imagery or no imagery at all.
Research on the phenomenon of suspense in fiction confirms the transfer facilitation of satisfactory resolutions to arousing tensions. It has been demonstrated that witnessing a liked character in acute danger generates empathic distress, that this distress is accompanied by elevated sympathetic excitation, and that residues thereof enhance joyous reactions to the display of the character’s triumph over the endangering circumstances (Zillmann 2006). This enhancement of enjoyment has been observed for miniature plots (i.e., a scene of endangerment followed by a scene of overcoming) as well as for plots spanning an entire dramatic presentation (e.g., a motion picture). Numerous other dramatic transitions can be similarly explained. In “comic relief,” for example, an acutely distressing event is immediately followed by an amusing one, which regularly triggers intense laughter in a transfer-intensified over-reaction.
Dramatic entertainment does not necessarily serve the maximization of pleasure, however. It may focus on the creation of reflexive, contemplative states or on the evocation of somber and even grievous emotions. In case reflective states are targeted, arousing events should obviously be avoided. If such events are dramatically essential and must be featured, ample time must be allowed for the dissipation of the arousal produced by these events. In case grievous emotions are the object of drama, such as in tragedy, these emotions are again subject to excitation transfer. It has been shown, in fact, that grievous emotions can be intensified by residual excitation from preceding distressing experiences. This intensification functions analogously to that of suspense resolutions, except that the resolution of tragedy is, in terms of pleasure, very unsatisfactory.
- Cantor, J. R., & Zillmann, D. (1973). The effect of affective state and emotional arousal on music appreciation. Journal of General Psychology, 89, 97–108.
- Cantor, J. R., Bryant, J., & Zillmann, D. (1974). Enhancement of humor appreciation by transferred excitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 812 – 821.
- Cantor, J. R., Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. (1975). Enhancement of experienced sexual arousal in response to erotic stimuli through misattribution of unrelated residual excitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 69–75.
- Klausner, S. Z. (1967). Fear and enthusiasm in sport parachuting. In J. A. Knight & R. Slovenko (eds.), Motivations in play, games, and sports. Springfield, IL: Thomas.
- Mattes, J., & Cantor, J. (1982). Enhancing responses to television advertisements via the transfer of residual arousal from prior programming. Journal of Broadcasting, 26, 553–556.
- Zillmann, D. (1983). Transfer of excitation in emotional behavior. In J. T. Cacioppo & R. E. Petty (eds.), Social psychophysiology: A sourcebook. New York: Guilford, pp. 215–240.
- 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.
- Zillmann, D., & Mundorf, N. (1987). Image effects in the appreciation of video rock. Communication Research, 14(3), 316–334.
- Zillmann, D., Mody, B., & Cantor, J. R. (1974). Empathetic perception of emotional displays in films as a function of hedonic and excitatory state prior to exposure. Journal of Research in Personality, 8, 335–349.