The physical effects of media content are understood as the direct influence of the media on the organism. This includes mainly processes of physiological arousal as well as emotional effects evoking joy or fear, a pleasant mood or stress.
Early one-dimensional arousal theories (Lindsley 1951; Duffy 1962) stated that physiological arousal comprises unspecific activation on which degrees of alertness of the organism are dependent. Schachter used this assumption for a two-factor model of emotion according to which emotion results from the combination of arousal and cognition (Schachter 1964). For Schachter, positive and negative emotion are identical on a physiological level and can be differentiated only by cognitive evaluation and causal attributions.
This concept left its mark on communication research and inspired a great deal of research on media reception. Sturm et al. (1982) used a combination of physiological and cognitive measuring to explore the emotional involvement of children while watching TV. They found that the breathing amplitude while watching a filmic story varies systematically with the dramatic course the story takes and its evaluation as “pleasant” or “unpleasant.” This parallelism of physiological indicator Physiological Measurement) and cognitive evaluation can be seen as a solid arousal–appraisal conjunction according to Schachter. The authors also found inconsistent results: the skin conductance level (SCL) rose continually without a clear connection to cognitive evaluation.
Zillmann used the Schachter concept as a basis for his excitation transfer model which plays an important part in media violence research (Zillmann 1971). The model states that residual arousal caused by an earlier filmic event leads to cognitive re-evaluation in a new situation and thereby to reinforcement of existing behavior. For instance, hostile attitudes can be reinforced by highly arousing erotic content if the surrounding conditions (e.g., frustrating or annoying factors) stimulate aggressive behavior. On the other hand, it is possible to enhance helpfulness by showing frightening filmic material if the situation inspires pro-social behavior.
One problem of Schachter’s theory and its practical applications in communication studies is that the variability of cognitive interpretation of arousal tends to be overestimated and there is often not enough distinction between different arousal indicators. Film reception experiments by Lazarus and his colleagues (1962) show that the skin conductance level indicates stressful film events. Heart rate and blood pressure, however, indicate motor activation or pleasant arousal. According to the two-arousal hypothesis by Routtenberg (1968) and further developments by Gray (1982). Gray argues for at least two different arousal systems that can, depending on the surrounding conditions for the individual, either enhance or obstruct each other. The behavioral activation system (BAS) prepares the organism for motor activities, e.g., in the context of fight or flight, and easily reacts to rewarding cues. The behavioral inhibition system (BIS) is stimulated by fear, and usually interrupts motor action and promotes cognitive activities (Fowles 1980). Both types of arousal can be influenced by cognition, but cannot be modified at will in any way.
With this concept in mind, the dissociation between the SCL (indicator for BIS) and heart rate (indicator for BAS) during the course of a dramatic filmic chase can be explained. In a viewer experiment (Grimm 1999), both arousal indicators ran parallel as long as a woman on the run (and with her the viewers) saw a chance of escaping several aggressive men. When a few scenes later the men finally caught up with the woman and she realized the situation was hopeless, the viewers’, and also presumably the victim’s, BAS activities suddenly dropped while BIS arousal continued to rise. BIS thereby developed an obstructing function for BAS in order to protect the organism from useless and potentially damaging arousal and to make further cognitive operations possible.
Today, empirical research has shown that cognition does not only function as a subsequent attribute of arousal states, but also actively creates them. Zillmann (1988) proved that intentional exposure to media content can interrupt adversive moods and aggressive feelings. In dealing with frightening media content, the viewers use techniques of self-appeasement such as the affirmation “It’s only a movie.” In this way, unpleasantly high arousal levels can be regulated cognitively. On the other hand, people strive for arousal-inducing experiences to a certain extent in order to reach the arousal level that is suitable for them (Zuckerman 1979). “High sensation seekers” therefore prefer horror movies and pornography whereas “low sensation seekers” avoid intensively arousing movies (Zuckerman & Litle 1986). Buchsbaum & Silverman (1968) showed that a high level of arousal (BIS and BAS) is accompanied by higher cortical activity. According to this, “high sensation seekers” increase their cognitive arousal regulation together with the desired arousal intensity. This leads to the assumption that the gratification of arousal-inducing media use is not only generated by the BIS–BAS activation itself, but also by the regulation of arousal. This view is consistent with the emotion management concept (Vitouch 1993; Grimm 2006) according to which frightening media stimuli are sought out to enhance fear control. This usually implies a strengthening of BIS in relation to BAS.
As a BIS-dominated activity, television use can have damaging effects on a long-term basis. Hill et al. (2003) showed in a longitudinal study that the intensive use of television correlates with lack of exercise (weak BAS) and obesity. The so-called “couch potato” effect can be seen as unwanted long-term effect of an otherwise efficient activity of excitement monitoring from a physiological point of view.
Another rather underrated effect is the impact of heavy media use on the ability to concentrate. There is evidence that the continuous reception of fast shots and jump cuts in a movie may contribute to a state of enjoyable distraction, but will interfere with the ability to concentrate on something for a longer period of time (Christakis et al. 2004). Others, however, argue that television increases the speed of perception and thereby cognitive abilities.
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