We all have that one friend, co-worker, or family member that hounds us to go to the haunted house with them every year. In the spirit of Halloween being just around the corner, we will be discussing an article that explores why we like to be scared. The 2019 article is titled “Voluntary Arousing Negative Experiences (VANE): Why We Like to Be Scared.” Authors Kerr, Siegle, and Orsini examined survey data and neural reactivity associated with voluntary engagement in high arousal negative experiences (VANE). The researchers sought to explore if and how stimuli otherwise perceived as negative might be experienced as positive stimuli in the context of voluntary engagement.

What did they do?

Researchers recruited participants who had already sought out a negative affect inducing experience (i.e. an interactive haunted experience) and assessed affect and cognition, broadly pre- and post-experience to answer 4 primary questions:

  1. Does self-reported affect increase?
  2. Are outcomes moderated by prepotent affect and expectations?
  3. Is VANE associated with decreases in neural activity?
  4. Are some types of individuals more likely to enjoy VANE than others?

Why did they do it?

The inability to down-regulate negative emotions is typically associated with psychopathology, and negative emotional states are typically conceptualized as states which should be transitioned away from, rather than encouraged. However, it is incredibly common for individuals to engage in experiences that elicit negative emotions, such as attending haunted houses or watching an emotional movie. The researchers point out that it would be useful to consider possible secondary gains from such an experience - it might not all be bad.

The investigation of this concept is not new; however, there are very few studies that have considered the neural mechanisms involved in VANE. Thus, the authors of this study sought to explore a framework in which VANE results in positive changes in affect due to subsequent down-regulation of cognitive and emotional processing systems. This down-regulation is hypothesized to yield decreased reactivity to later tasks, worries, or negative cognitions, prompting individuals to engage.

How did they do it?

The authors of this (spooky) study recruited 262 adult participants (123 males, 139 females; mean age = 27.5 years) to complete self-report assessments from a pool of individuals who had previously purchased tickets to an extreme haunted house. Of those participants, a subgroup (n = 100) completed the EEG assessment, as well. Pre- and post-experience questionnaires were very brief and researchers collected demographic data, affect information, measures regarding previous encounters with voluntary arousing negative experiences, and expectations in the pre-experience assessment. Post-assessment, participants were also asked if they enjoyed the experience and how scary the experience was, among a few other questions.

The EEG task assessed constructs relevant to cognition and emotion, particularly focusing on emotional valence, arousal, and cognitive load. The task included a passive picture viewing portion, as well as a portion involving loud sounds in 2 separate conditions; one where the participant is observed and another where the task is partnered with hand holding.

What did they find?

Addressing the first question posed (change in affect), an overall improvement was found from pre to post assessment. 50% of participants reported an increase in affect, 33% reported no change in affect, and 17% reported a decrease in affect following the haunted house experience. Significant decreases in affect were most associated with participants who endorsed pre-experience feelings of anxiety and tiredness, and participants who reported to feel anxious before entering the haunted house rated the experience as scarier, more uncomfortable, and revolting.

Results from the EEG testing revealed that variety of post-VANE affect states (i.e. uncomfortable, scared, sad, anxious) were associated with neural changes, suggesting that neural change contributes to either affective state change or maintenance.

Overall, researchers found that VANE can be associated with subsequent positive changes in self-reported affect, and is associated with reliable changes (decreases) in neural reactivity across a variety of tasks.

What does it all mean (our take)?

While seasonally relevant, the data in this article are also clinically pretty impactful. This type of literature appears to be relevant to the world of stress management, and how people can best manage upcoming stressful situations. The researchers creatively leveraged a highly distressing naturally existing phenomena (i.e., haunted house) to help learn more about what may actually help people best handle highly stressful situations. We’re looking forward to reviewing more exciting literature like this down the road!




Join the Conversation