A bedrock assumption in theories that explain and predict human behavior is people's motivation to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. How can this be reconciled with the decision to engage in experiences known to elicit negative feelings, such as horror movies" It certainly seems counterintuitive that so many people would voluntarily immerse themselves in almost two hours of fear, disgust and terror. "Why do people pay for this?" "How is this enjoyable?"
Investigators generally use one of two theories to explain why people like horror movies. The first is that the person is not actually afraid, but excited by the movie. The second explanation is that they are willing to endure the terror in order to enjoy a euphoric sense of relief at the end. But, a new study by Eduardo Andrade (University of California, Berkeley) and Joel B. Cohen (University of Florida) appearing in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research argues that neither of these theories is correct.
"We believe that a reevaluation of the two dominant explanations for people's willingness to consume "negative" experiences (both of which assume that people can not experience negative and positive emotions simultaneously) is in order," explain Andrade and Cohen in their study.
They continue: "The assumption of people's inability to experience positive and negative affect at the same time is incorrect."
In other words, the authors argue that horror movie viewers are happy to be unhappy. This novel approach to emotion reveals that people experience both negative and positive emotions simultaneously - people may actually enjoy being scared, not just relief when the threat is removed. As the authors put it, "the most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful."
Andrade and Cohen developed and utilize a new methodology to track negative and positive feelings at the same time. Their method could apply to other experiences that seem to elicit terror, risk, or disgust, such as extreme sports.
"When individuals who typically choose to avoid the stimuli were embedded in a protective frame of mind, such that there was sufficient psychological disengagement or detachment, they experienced positive feelings while still experiencing fearfulness," the authors explain.
Eduardo B. Andrade and Joel B. Cohen. "On the Consumption of Negative Feelings" Journal of Consumer Research: August 2007.