Coping with Fright
Coping With Media-Induced Fright:
An Application of the Absorption Hypothesis
Eugenia Y. Peck
University of Wisconsin - Madison
Department of Communication Arts, 821 University Avenue, Vilas
Communication Hall, Madison WI 53706. (608) 263-2039. [log in to unmask]
Aim of the Study
Fright, resulting from exposure to the media, has long been
documented in journal and newspaper articles as well as in scholarly writing to
cause short- and long-term negative effects . Articles in New York Times, Los
Angeles Times, St. Petersburg Times, Time, and USA Today have reported on the
spread of panic and fear caused by movies such as Exorcist, and Psycho, and
movies and news on nuclear war, child kidnappings, and lead poisoning (Connor,
1994; Exorcist, 1974; Frightful, 1994; Glidewell, 1993; Stein, 1982). In
addition, scholars such as Blumer (1933), Cantril (1940), Cantor (1991, 1994),
Sparks (1989; Sparks, Spirek, & Hodgson, 1993), Tamborini, Salomonson and Bahk
(1993), and Wilson (1987, 1989, 1991) have shown that there are both short-term,
immediate emotional effects of fright on behavior such as anxiety, inability to
concentrate, decreased recall, and poor task performance, as well as longer-term
emotional reactions such as lifetime of fear of the dark, sleep disorders,
depression, and paranoia. With more than 2,000 horror films released each year
(Willis, 1972, 1982) and the percentage of adult and teenage frequent moviegoers
increasing 4% each year (Monush, 1995), it is important to study coping
strategies that will decrease the negative reactions of media-induced fright.
Taking the position that all emotions, including fear, require
cognitive effort, and that humans have limited cognitive capacity, this study
aims to test one possible coping strategy for media-induced fright: the
redirection of cognitive capacity away from the experience of the fear to a
nonrelated task so as to decrease the experience of fear. More specifically,
this study tests the absorption hypothesis, developed by Erber and Tesser (1992)
as a strategy for the reduction of depression, in a fear situation.
Emotion and Cognition
Emotion, although a complex concept made up of subjective
experience, behavioral expression and arousal, is ultimately controlled by and
defined by one's cognitive appraisal of the situation (Lazarus, 1984; Ortony,
Clore & Collins, 1988; Scheier & Carver, 1982). Cognition not only "determines
which emotion, if any, will be experienced" (Reisenzein, 1983, p. 240), but "the
physiological, behavioral, and expressive aspects of emotions...presuppose that
this first, cognitive, step has already taken place" (Ortony, Clore, & Collins,
1988, p. 2).
Similarly, the elicitation of fear is a product of both the
affective and cognitive systems (Levanthal, 1982), and requires attention to the
feared stimulus situation and one's physiological and behavioral responses
(Lang, 1977). In addition to the empirical support provided by the emotion
theorists (see Leventhal, 1982, for a review), various studies done by the
Cantor group of researchers on fright responses to the media support the
position that fright involves some understanding of the fear-inducing situation.
Research on Media-Induced Fear
Motivated by Piaget's developmental stages, Cantor and Sparks (1984)
surveyed 380 parents about their children's reactions to television programs and
found that preoperational children reacted to films with fantasy (or
unrealistic) content more often than concrete operational children, whereas
concrete operational children were more often afraid of films with fictional
(realistic but not true) content than were preoperational children. This was
because preoperational children did not fully comprehend the distinction between
fantasy and reality, and tended to centrate so that they only attended to "a
single, striking feature of an object," and "readily apparent visual cues"
(Cantor & Sparks, p. 93), such as witches, while older children were more
frightened by plot and dangers faced by the characters than by visual cues.
Thus, the researchers concluded that differences in the thought processes of the
two age groups were determining fear responses.
This position was further supported in a number of follow-up studies
done by Hoffner and Cantor (1985), Sparks (1986), and Wilson and Cantor (1985).
Hoffner and Cantor (1985) showed that preoperational children (5-to-7-years-old)
focused more on the visual aspects of a character (ugly or grandmotherly) than
on the character's personality (kind versus cruel) when determining whether a
character was good or bad, whereas concrete operational children
(8-to-11-years-old) weighted her personality more heavily. Similarly, Sparks
(1986) found that preoperational children, more than concrete operational
children, were afraid of the transformation of a character from its normal human
shape to a werewolf (in the music video Thriller) because they focused on the
actual appearance of the werewolf, and not that the werewolf was Michael
Jackson, a popular singer, in makeup. Wilson and Cantor (1985) also found that
older children (9-to-11-years-old) had the greater ability to role-take than
younger children (3-to-5-years-old). As a result of this developmental
difference, younger children were less able to empathize with the characters on
the screen and were frightened by a video showing a fierce looking bee more than
a video showing a boy reacting in fear. In contrast, older children reacted
with similar levels of fright to scenes that showed fear on the character's face
as well as to scenes of the bee.
In an experiment by Cantor, Sparks and Hoffner (1988), the
researchers exposed children to tapes showing either that the Incredible Hulk
was merely a man with make-up on (Visual Cue) or that the Hulk had the same
positive motives as its pretransformation character, Doctor David Banner
(Identity Cue) prior to showing them an episode of the program. These
researchers found that when the children were shown either of these tapes, they
responded with less fear when exposed to an episode of the Hulk than did a
control group. This was true for all age groups (3-5-years-old, 6-7-years-old,
and 9-10-years-old). In addition, children in the Identity Cues condition rated
the Hulk as equally positive as its untransformed character, David Banner. This
showed that the children reacted with less fear once they understood the motives
and "unrealistic" nature of the grotesque-looking character. Thus, when the
children's interpretation of the Hulk's looks and motives was changed, their
emotional responses changed too.
The positioning of the scary characters as "not real" can be done in
the program itself. Wilson (1991) found that when young children viewed a
grotesque-looking thing that was supposed to be in a character's dream, children
were less fearful than if the thing did not appear in a dream. Through an
experiment, Wilson showed that a prologue showing the character getting into
bed, and a twirling special effect suggesting the beginning of a dream before
the actual scary sequence, evoked less fear in children than a version without
this prologue. This was obviously because the children who did view the
prologue identified the scary sequence as occurring in a dream and, therefore,
"interpreted the program as less threatening" (p. 295).
For young adult samples, Cantor, Ziemke and Sparks (1984) found that
explicit forewarning, which gave a detailed act by act description of what the
actors were going to do and how they were going to react in the movie, tended to
increase fright responses to a frightening media stimulus. In other words,
having some knowledge about coming events affects the experience of the event.
According to the researchers, forewarning acted to increase anticipatory arousal
which increased the experience of fright. However, this effect could be
moderated by an individual's preferred style of coping with stressful events.
Sparks and Spirek (1988) found that blunters, or individuals who preferred to
"avoid external information under conditions of stress" (p. 200), experienced
more fear when forewarned than monitors who preferred to gather as much
information as possible about the impending fear.
While not made explicit by the researchers, this line of research
has been very helpful in supporting the primacy of cognition in emotional
responses. The developmental studies have shown us that cognitive processes are
an important determinant of the level of fear. Similarly, the information one
has about the situation also affects the fear experienced.
Since emotions are largely the result of cognitive processes,
manipulations of cognitive processing after the emotional experience should
affect the degree to which the emotion is subsequently "felt."
The Attenuation of Fright: The Absorption Hypothesis
Although numerous studies have documented the effects of
media-induced fright, the role of cognition in the experience of fright, and how
to cope before or during exposure to the frightening experience, there has been
no study of intervention strategies after the frightening experience. The
literature on coping has emphasized desentization or cognitive (using
explanations) methods introduced before exposure to the frightening film, or
methods employed while watching the frightening film such as holding on to a
blanket or distracting a child while the child is watching the program (see
In a study of coping methods for depression, Morrow and
Nolen-Hoeksema (1990) found that individuals who tended to utilize ruminative
coping responses remained depressed while those who tended to use distraction
experienced alleviation from their depression. Ruminative coping responses
involved "cognitions and behaviors that repetitively focus the depressed
individual's attention on his or her symptoms and the possible causes and
consequences of those symptoms" (Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, p. 519). The
alternative was distraction: "cognitions and behavior that take the individual's
mind off his or her symptoms of depression" (Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, p. 519).
Their study further showed that the level of distraction was important in
determining if the distraction worked to decrease depression.
According to Kahneman's (1973) proposed capacity model of attention,
there is a general limit on the energy available for performing mental
operations. In line with Morrow and Nolen-Hoeksema's (1990) position, Kahneman
recommended focusing on an activity requiring mental operation as a way to
decrease the capacity to attend to other cognitive tasks. Hasher and Zacks
(1979) developed this proposal further by conceptualizing processing as a
continuum ranging from automatic, on the one end, to effortful, on the other.
Engaging in any task requiring awareness and intention requires effortful
processing which decreases one's capacity for other forms of processing.
Based on these studies, Erber and Tesser (1992) developed the
absorption hypothesis. Erber and Tesser proposed that the regulation of mood
depended on more than just the conscious attempt to think of thoughts that were
mood-congruent or mood-incongruent. Reviewing studies on thought suppression,
the researchers found that the attempt to not think of negative thoughts "may
ultimately backfire because the subsequent preoccupation with the suppressed
thoughts may lead to a further deterioration of one's mood" (p. 341). In
essence, "intentions to control the mind [can] unleash an ironic monitoring
system that not only searches for the failure of mental control but also then
tends to create that failure. The subtle increase in accessibility of thoughts
pertinent to failed control is sometimes enough to invite such thoughts into
consciousness and so to subvert the intended control" (Wegner, Erber & Zanakos,
1993, p. 1094). Wegner, Erber and Zanakos proposed that unfocused distraction
may be a viable alternative to mood repair. Morrow and Nolen-Hoeksema's (1990)
work on the remediation of depression supported this basic tenet that the lack
of cognitive effort devoted to the depressive event and mood could lead to an
attenuation of the mood. Following this argument, the absorption hypothesis
proposed that task involvement should act as a cognitive load that would
"'absorb' moods by preventing further preoccupation with mood-related
thoughts....[leaving] little room to process information related to one's mood"
(Erber & Tesser, 1992, p. 342). However, in using distraction as a mood repair
tool, one had to ensure that the task required a high degree of cognitive
processing such that "the task demands prohibit any residual preoccupation with
mood congruent material" (Erber & Erber, 1994, p. 83).
Erber & Tesser (1992) tested this hypothesis using three different
experiments. In their first two experiments, they requested that subjects
market a product to 10 different markets after they viewed either a sad or a
neutral film in the first experiment, or a happy or a neutral film in the second
experiment. In the high involvement task situation, subjects were told to pay
particular attention to the information provided on these markets before making
their decision as this had been shown to affect performance. In the low
involvement task situation, the subjects were told that the information provided
would probably not make much impact in their performance as ability was found to
be the key factor determining performance. They found that the high involvement
task situation displayed greater attenuation of both negative and positive moods
compared to those in the low involvement task situation.
In their third experiment, task involvement was manipulated by task
difficulty. The difficult task was a series of multiplication problems, and the
easy task was a series of addition and subtraction problems. This time, they
included a control group which had no task condition. The current study
replicates this manipulation of task involvement. The subjects were put into
either a sad mood or a happy mood by watching a sad movie or comedy
respectively. They found that in the difficult task situation, both positive
and negative moods were attenuated. That is, subjects who were saddened felt
less sad after completing the difficult math problems and those who were put in
a happy mood felt less happy after completing the multiplication problems. Such
an effect was not found for the easy task situation nor for the no task
These findings were replicated in a study on mood incongruent recall
(Erber & Erber, 1994) where the researchers found that recalling
mood-incongruent memories led to the attenuation of the mood experienced prior
to the recall exercise. They attributed the reason for such attenuation to the
recall task which "impose[d] demands on working memory" (p. 83) and decreased
the cognitive capacity of the individual to attend to the mood.
Since fear has been categorized as a largely negative feeling
(Izard, 1971; Ortony, Clore & Collins, 1988), we would expect this type of
distraction strategy to work for fright responses as well. In fact, Tamborini,
Stiff and Heidel (1990) surmised that possible coping mechanisms for horror
movies included looking away, or redirecting the response. Looking away would
decrease the fear, but it would still leave a feeling of discomfort. On the
other hand, they found that redirecting the response from fear to humor was more
effective because it decreased the feelings of distress and increased feelings
of pleasure. It also seems apparent that subjects were required to exert more
cognitive effort in being redirected to humor then when they were when they only
looked away from the screen. Thus, following the research by Erber & Tesser
(1992), this study tests the following hypothesis:
H1: The attenuation of fright experienced as the result of film
exposure will be greatest in the difficult task (high
compared to either the easy (low involvement) or no task
Because this study emphasizes cognitive processing of emotions, it
would be logical to expect that individual sensitivity to the environment as it
relates to oneself would influence the individual's emotional response to the
media stimulus. According to Salovey (1992), self-focus intensifies affect
because mood-congruent thoughts are activated when an emotion is experienced.
According to his proposed model of affect-action sequences, after an
emotionally-charged event, aspects of self relevant to the affect become
salient. These aspects then reinforces the experience of the affect.
Similarly, Zillmann's (1971) theory of excitation transfer posited that with the
priming of a fearful experience, repeated thought given to the experience can
serve to reinforce the arousal associated with that affect.
Since the measure of self-focus developed by Wegner and Giuliano
(1983) and used by Salovey (1992) has been criticized to be a weak measure of
true self-awareness (as opposed to a conscious attempt to not mention the self)
(see Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1987), the public self-consciousness scale, which
has been widely accepted, was used in this study. Since public
self-consciousness is the tendency to consider the self, albeit as a social
object, and to react in typical ways that one thinks might result in positive
evaluations (Feningstein, Scheier & Buss, 1975), then, when an affect-evoking
situation takes place, the affect would cue associated thoughts about the
impression one would make on others in a similar situation. Thus, in a
frightening film exposure situation, self-focus would activate associated
thoughts of other similar situations, and the impressions associated with these
situation, such that these cognitions serve to reinforce the experienced
In a mass media exposure situation, affective experiences will tend
to result in increased self awareness, including the presentation of oneself to
others, because the appropriateness of these responses will determine the degree
to which one is accepted or liked by the group (Cozby, 1972). In addition,
Mullen, Chapman & Peaugh (1989) found that the degree of self-focused attention
was moderated by the type and size of group an individual was in. In their
laboratory experiment, Mullen et al. (1989) manipulated group size from one to
four subjects, and number of experimenters from one to four. After subjects
participated in a simulated commons dilemma, their degree of self-focus was
measured using a series of self-report items including "I was thinking of the
impression I would make" and "I was alert to what other people thought of me"
(p. 813). They found that a negative correlation between self-attention and the
ratio between the number of students in the group versus the number of
experimenters in the group. However, Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1987) argued that
the concept of a public self "cannot be equated with momentary behavior, nor
with momentary commentaries about one's being, for these are lacking a
foundation in a longer-range continuity of self-feeling" (p. 515). That is to
say, public self-consciousness is a "generalized preoccupation with
self-presentation" (Feningstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975) or a trait tendency, not
a state tendency. To test the effect of public self-consciousness on the
experience of a frightening emotion, assuming that the measure developed by
Feningstein et al. (1975) is a dispositional trait measure and not a measure of
state, the following hypothesis was developed:
H2: Subjects high on public self-consciousness, regardless of
number of subjects in the experimental condition, should
fright than subjects low in public self-consciousness
after watching the same
In addition to the two hypotheses outlined above, it is also
possible that task difficulty and public self-consciousness will interact to
affect fright attenuation. However, the precise nature of this interaction is
not necessarily easy to predict. Scholle (1992), in his study of strategies to
decrease arousal and anxiety among highly- and not highly-aware subjects, found
that individuals high on general self-awareness tended to experience greater
attenuation of arousal and anxiety with a verbalized disclosure of his/her
feeling state than those low in self-awareness. He found that the strategies of
merely remaining silent or self-talking about the feeling were less effective.
One of the explanations given by the researcher was that disclosure required
more cognitive effort resulting in the redirection of attention from the emotion
to the process of verbalization. This could mean that individuals high on
public self-consciousness will expend more effort on the tasks at hand because
of their concern over the kinds of impressions they would be making on others
(that is, they will attend to their self-presentation). Consequently, in
contrast to those low on public self-consciousness, these individuals may
experience greater attenuation of their fright reactions as a result of engaging
in the math task. Thus, the manipulation of task difficulty would be more
effective for those who are high on public self-consciousness.
A second possibility is that those high on public self-consciousness
will be more conscious of being negatively evaluated such that these negative
cognitions intensify the experience of the negative fright experience (Shepperd
& Arkin, 1989). In addition, these negative cognitions might influence high
public self-conscious individuals to focus more intensely on the difficulty of
the task as well as feel more pressure to complete the math tasks successfully.
If this occurs, then the task manipulation may accentuate fright. Of course, it
is possible that neither of these alternatives will be supported by the data.
Because of these conflicting theoretical analyses, a research question is posed
in order to examine these possibilities:
RQ1: Will public self-consciousness and task difficulty interact
to affect fright attenuation? If so, what is the nature
of this interaction
Sixty-nine students from a large midwestern university volunteered
as subjects in this experiment.
A videotape consisting of a documentary, a non-arousing nature film
and an excerpt from a suspense horror film, When a Stranger Calls, was used.
The documentary and nature films were used to give credibility to the cover
story as well as to act as baseline segments for measures of emotion. These
films were used to ensure that subjects were put into a neutral mood which
helped guard against confounding results due to differences in affect at the
beginning of the study (Ingram, 1989). Both the baseline films lasted about 6
min., while the film stimulus lasted 20 min. The sequence showed the story of a
young babysitter who is threatened repeatedly by a stranger's phone call to
check on the children only to find out, later, that the call is coming from
within the house. This film was chosen instead of any slasher type films to
avoid specific reactions that subjects might have to graphic violence or gore.
Self-report measures were taken immediately following each baseline
film segment and the frightening film segment by asking participants to complete
a questionnaire consisting of single items about how frightened, upset and
anxious they were while viewing the segment, on a scale of 0 to 9. The fright
measure consisted of the additive index of these items. This questionnaire also
included measures of liking, editing quality and how informative the subjects
felt the films were to disguise the real purpose of the study to give
credibility to the cover story. In addition, subjects completed the anxiety
portion of the brief MAACL (Multiple Affect Adjective Check List by Zuckerman &
Lubin, 1965) scale to ensure that the experiment did not exceed one hour.
The attenuation of fright was measured as the difference between the
self-report measures of fright taken just after the viewing of the frightening
film, and the self-report measures of fright taken after the completion of the
various tasks, including measures taken at the end of the 10 min. "rest" period
for those in the no task condition (see below for a description of the task
Manipulation of Task Conditions
The manipulation for task difficulty was pretested on 30 students
(difficult task: n = 15; easy task: n = 15). A similar set of tasks as that
used by Erber and Tesser (1992) was prepared for the manipulations of difficult
(high involvement) versus easy (low involvement) task. The difficult task
included 100 multiplication math problems (e.g., 19 x 21, 14 x 16, 29 x 5).
The easy task included 100 addition and subtraction math problems (e.g., 17 + 8,
29 - 3, 7 + 11). After completing the task, subjects rated the difficulty of
the task on a rating of 1 to 5 with 1 indicating "Not at all difficult" and 5
indicating "Extremely difficult". A comparison of the difficulty ratings
revealed a significant difference between the two types of tests (t = 3.14, p <
0.05) with the difficult task being evaluated as more difficult (M = 4.47, SD =
.52) than the easy task (M = 1.53, SD = .92). There was also a significant
difference between the number of correct answers for the easy task versus the
difficult task (t = 4.08, p < 0.01; Easy: M = 93.4, SD = 9.07; Difficult: M =
28.93, SD = 18.32).
In addition, the pretest showed that students completed the
addition/subtraction set of problems in less than 10 min. To ensure that there
was no lag time between the easy and difficult groups which could confound
findings as a result of unmanipulated cognitive processing, the easy task, in
the actual experiment, consisted of 250 addition and subtraction problems. To
match this, the number of problems in the difficult task was increased from 100
to 200 multiplication problems. Two hundred multiplication problems was
preferred over 250 to decrease the possibility of any undue stress caused by the
appearance of the sheer number of difficult problems presented, and to ensure
that both the difficult and easy problems filled two pages.
As in the Erber and Tesser study (1992), subjects were instructed
to complete the problems without the use of calculators, pens or paper. In
addition, subjects were specifically instructed to solve the problems in
numerical order no matter how tempting it was to only answer the easier
problems. To further guard against undue stress, subjects were told that they
did not need to complete all the problems, but to just complete as many as they
Public Self-Consciousness Measure
The Fenigstein, Scheier and Buss (1975) self-consciousness scale
which included statements such as "I'm concerned about the way I present myself
" or "I'm usually aware if my appearance" measured on a scale of 0 (extremely
uncharacteristic) to 4 (extremely characteristic) was used. Only the items
measuring public self-consciousness were used in the primary analysis. The
remaining items were included to guard against subjects' awareness of the
purpose of the scale.
In addition, subjects were asked to complete a paragraph stating
their best guess of the experimental hypothesis at the end of the experiment.
All analyses were conducted with and without subjects who correctly guessed the
hypothesis (n = 9), although excluding these subjects did reduce the cell sizes
in the design below acceptable levels for adequate power.
All subjects reported to the experimental laboratory for the study.
Subjects were run through the procedure in sessions that included from one to
six subjects. The subjects were seated about two feet apart with an opaque
curtain between them so that they were not able to see each other, but could
hear each other's reactions to the film stimulus. Their distance from the
30-inch screen television set ranged from six feet to eight feet.
To begin the experiment, subjects were given a written description
of the study and an informed consent statement. They were also asked to
complete a "personal inventory" which actually served as the measure of public
self-consciousness. The subjects then viewed the tape with the two nonarousing
documentary and nature programs, followed by the film stimulus. The segments
were separated by 45 seconds of black. After viewing each segment, the subjects
were asked to complete the fright measure. After the last film, the subjects
were asked to either participate in: 1) difficult task condition, 2) an easy
task condition, or 3) a no task condition in which subjects were told to wait
quietly. The last condition acted as the control group. After 10 min., the
researcher returned with the fright questionnaire and the post-experimental
questionnaire. The entire procedure took one hour.
Out of the 69 subjects who participated in the experiment, all but
two provided complete information. These two were left out of all subsequent
analyses. Of the remaining 67 subjects, 21 were in the difficult condition, 26
in the easy condition, and 20 in the no task condition. Of these, eight
subjects completed the experiment individually, eight subjects completed the
experiment in groups of two (or four groups of two), 15 were in groups of three
(or three groups of three), 20 were in groups of four (or five groups of four),
10 were in groups of five (or two groups of five) and six subjects were in
groups of six (that is, one group of six).
The t-test for independent samples showed that the two tasks
differed significantly in terms of correct responses (t = 22.72, p < 0.001;
Difficult: M = 16.36, SD = 50.12; Easy: M = 156.81, SD = 10.51). All subjects
worked the problems for the entire 10 min. with none of them completing all the
problems before the 10 min. was up.
A two-way repeated measures ANOVA, with film type as the repeated
factor and task condition as the other independent factor, revealed a main
effect for film type (F(2,128) = 102.56, p = .0001). An analysis of the means
using the Student-Nueman-Keuls test showed a significant difference for all
three programs such that the frightening film When a Stranger Calls induced the
greatest amount of fright followed by the documentary than the nature film
(Fright: M = 16.1, SD = 6.3; Documentary: M = 7.69, SD = 5.67; Nature: M = 4.33,
SD = 3.82).
Reliability and Validity of the Dependent Measure
The dependent measure, fright, had a Cronbach's alpha of .80. In
addition, it correlated significantly with the MAACL measure of anxiety commonly
used in previous fright studies (r = 0.57, p < .001).
The delayed fright measure consisted of the summed total of the
single items fright, anxiety, upset and scared measured after the task was
completed. Cronbach's alpha for the additive index was .82. In addition, the
composite measure of delayed fright was correlated with the MAACL measure taken
after the task was completed to check for validity (r = .78, p < .001).
The Effect of Task Absorption on Fright Attenuation
The first hypothesis stated that the attenuation of fright would be
greatest in the high-involvement task condition compared to either the
low-involvement or no task conditions. To test this hypothesis, the change in
fright score was calculated by subtracting the fright score measured after the
task from the fright score measured immediately after the frightening film.
This produced a change score that was larger with greater fright attenuation. A
hierarchical multiple regression using change in fright score as the dependent
variable with public self-consciousness entered in the first step as a
independent variable and condition, dummy coded to test the differences between
the three conditions, entered as the second independent variable showed a
significant overall effect (F(3,63) = 4.12, p < .01) with R = .41 (R2 = 16.6).
Thus, public self-consciousness and the differences between the conditions
accounted for almost 17% of the variance in fright attenuation. In the first
step of the analysis, (F(1,65) = 7.41, p < .01) with public self-consciousness
accounting for 10% of the variance in fright attenuation. A look at the
zero-order correlation showed a positive significant linear relationship between
public self-consciousness and fright attenuation (r = .32, p < .01). This means
that those high on public self-consciousness experienced greater fright
attenuation than those low on public self-consciousness. At the second step, R2
change was 6%, not significant (F(2,63) = 2.42, p < .1). However, looking at
the comparisons between the conditions, the semipartial correlation for the
contrast between the easy task condition and the control group was .22, p < .05.
That is, those in the easy task condition (M = 15.69; SD = 2.68) appeared to
experience a greater amount of fright attenuation compared to those in the no
task condition (M = 11.85; SD = 1.56). However, the comparison of the difficult
task condition (M = 14.86; SD = 2.19) with the no task condition only approached
significance (sr = .218. p = .062).
The Role of Public Self-Consciousness and Fright
Hypothesis 2 stated that subjects high on public self-consciousness,
regardless of the number of subjects in the experimental condition, should
experience greater fright than subjects low on public self-consciousness. A
multiple regression with group size and public self-consciousness as the
independent variables, entered accordingly in a hierarchical analysis, and the
fright scores measured immediately after the frightening movie showed a
significant main effect for public self-consciousness only (F(1,63) = 12.23, p <
.001) after group size had been partialed out. Group size was not a
contributor to the variance of fright in the first step of the regression model
(F(1,65) = 2.42, p = .12). However, when public self-consciousness was added to
the equation, R2 change was significant at 15% (p < .001). The B's indicated a
tendency for those high on public self-consciousness to experience greater
fright than those low on public self-consciousness.
To address the research question which sought to explore the effect
of public self-consciousness and task condition on fright attenuation, a
multiple regression, with change in fright as the dependent variable, and public
self-consciousness, condition and their interaction entered accordingly as
separate steps in a hierarchical analysis, was done. The analysis failed to
show a significant interaction effect for private self-consciousness and task
condition (F(1,61) = .25, p = .62).
The results of the experiment found statistically significant
support for the hypothesis that absorption could be used as an effective coping
strategy for media-induced fright. However, a look at the means indicated that
there was a tendency for the easy task, not the difficult task, to result in
greater attenuation. This could be a function of the task itself. An analysis
of the means of anxiety experienced in the three conditions revealed that those
in the difficult condition experienced the greatest amount of anxiety (M = 3.29,
SD = 2.64) compared to those in the easy (M = 2.58, SD = 2.23) and no task (M =
2.7, SD = 2.58) conditions. While these numbers were not statistically
significant, they do indicate the general trend of what might have been
happening. Perhaps, as noted by Josephs and Steele (1990), the activity may not
have been an appropriate distracter because it may have also induced added
frustration and anxiety.
There are two possible reasons why the increased anxiety in the
difficult condition compared to the easy or no task conditions was not found in
the original Erber and Tesser (1990) study. The first could be due to the
manipulation of task difficulty. In their study, Erber and Tesser provided
subjects with a book consisting of two problems on each page and given 10 sec to
complete each page. As a result, subjects were not exposed to the total number
of problems in the book. This could have prevented an onset of anxiety which
could have resulted if they had known that there were numerous problems to
solve. Although the current study attempted to prevent such anxiety from
developing by reassuring subjects that they were not expected to complete all
the problems, the initial "shock" of seeing all the problems may have been
unavoidable. This could explain why the difficult task condition in this study
did not result in effective fright attenuation while the difficult task
condition was the most effective in fright attenuation in the Erber and Tesser
study. In addition, given the exam-oriented environment that these students
were in, the pressure to perform well in the math tasks could have added to the
anxiety. Obviously, those who were presented with the difficult problems faced
greater anxiety thinking about their ability to solve them, without calculators,
than those who were given the easy problems. In contrast, in the Erber and
Tesser study, some subjects in the difficult condition might have completed the
problems before the 10 sec were up resulting in the lack of anxiety that might
have arisen due to time pressure.
A second possibility could be the result of a confounding variable
of the lag time that subjects may have had in solving the problems between
pages. In their task manipulation, Erber and Tesser (1992) gave all subjects an
equal 10 sec to solve the two problems on each page. It is clear from the
studies in this paradigm that subjects in the easy condition would have solved
the problems faster than those in the difficult condition. As a result, these
subjects would have had time to ruminate about their emotional responses while
waiting for instructions to turn their page over and start on the problems on
the next page. Consequently, this condition might tend to produce the same
result as those in the control group. That is, as a result of ruminating on
their emotion, the task would be less effective at fright attenuation. If this
possibility is correct, then the question of construct validity arises. Rather
than just a manipulation of task, another variable -- time given to ruminate --
was at work. To clearly differentiate these variables, it would be necessary to
revisit the paradigm with a more carefully constructed study that does not, in
any way, allow uncontrolled interaction of the time subjects have to ruminate
The possibility of the existence of these confounding variables
indicate that the manipulation of attention and cognitive effort is difficult.
In addition, we cannot be certain the extent to which these confounding
variables affected the fright measure taken after the task was completed. Were
the subjects thinking about the movie when they filled in this last measure? Or
were they feeling relief that the study was almost over? Thus, this study has
shown that delayed emotional measures may not be very reliable.
The present study only found significant differences in fright
attenuation between the easy and no task conditions, not the difficult task
condition. This lack of consistent results could be attributed to the
possibility that the cognitions associated with emotional processing and the
cognitions associated with task processing are different. This would mean that
the processing of a task would perhaps only minimally affect the processing of
an emotion. According to Hasher and Zacks (1979), all activities require some
kind of cognitive processing. However, they differentiate activities requiring
automatic processing and those requiring nonautomatic or effortful processing.
They differentiated the two processes by their degree of awareness, intention,
practice, and susceptibility to inhibition. They proposed that "automatic
encoding of information only minimally diminishes one's capacity to process
other components of the flow of information" (p. 358), but that "processes that
require effort...limit one's ability to engage simultaneously in other effortful
processes" (p.362). These effortful processes, however, do not affect or limit
the performance of other automatic processes. Thus, if emotional responses are
automatic, the additional attentional load of the effortful task of solving
math problems would not affect, or only somewhat affect, emotional responses.
Unfortunately, none of the experiments cited by Hasher and Zacks related to
emotion. Rather, the experiments that successfully differentiated automatic and
effortful processing involved learned abilities related to memory such as the
recognition of familiar objects or words. If this theory does explain the weak
findings, it would then be necessary to also understand why clearly significant
results were found in Erber and Tesser's (1990) study. Alternatively, in
Denny's (1991) study of the relief or relaxation from an aversive stimuli such
as one causing fear, he found that relief started "approximately 3 to 5 sec
after the cessation of shock or a strong CAS (conditioned aversive stimulus) and
is almost all over within the next 10 or 15 sec" (p.203). Considering that the
final measure of fear was taken after a full 10 min., the initial fear responses
may have attenuated despite the task conditions, thus resulting in the weakness
of the findings.
Public self-consciousness was a significant explanatory variable
for the experience of fright and for fright attenuation. The study supported
the hypothesis that those high on public self-consciousness were more likely to
experience greater fright compared to those low on public self-consciousness.
This finding supports Salovey's (1992) position that greater self-focus would
lead to more intense experiences of an emotion. Although the study also
supported the hypothesis that public self-consciousness is a dispositional trait
rather than a transitional state, the process by which public self-consciousness
affects emotional experience is unclear. It has been postulated that
self-consciousness can lead to the retrieval of self-presentation concerns
associated with the emotion experienced, thereby enhancing the emotion (Scholle,
1992), but no measures of thought was conducted in this study to support or
refute this position. Due to the length of the current experiment, an
exploration of this issue was left for future studies.
This study also found that those high on public self-consciousness
experienced greater fright attenuation than those low on public
self-consciousness and this relationship was statistically significant. This
seems to indicate that after 10 min, regardless of the task the subjects were
involved in, individuals who are high in public self-consciousness are no longer
focused on the frightening experience induced by the film and therefore
experienced less residual fear than those low on public self-consciousness.
While this may seem contradictory to the earlier finding that public
self-consciousness increases the experience of fright, researchers in the areas
of self-awareness have shown that "the focus of attention is likely to be
recursive, with moods affecting attention that then feeds back to and influences
mood in a self-regulatory [italics added] loop" (Salovey, 1992, p. 704; see
also Carver & Scheier, 1981). Thus, it is likely that the focus of highly
publicly self-conscious individuals switched from one that was negatively
valenced (induced by the negative affect) to one that would decrease the
negative state to one that is more positive. A future experiment that includes
spontaneous thought-listing could possibly determine if this was the case.
Although no significant interaction was found between public
self-consciousness and task condition, it would be inaccurate to conclude that
no such interactions exist. Perhaps with larger sample sizes and more equal
distribution of individuals on public self-consciousness in the different
conditions, the analysis would be more sensitive to differences. Based on
Cohen's (1988) formulation of power analysis, the power to detect significant
differences at p < .05 for this design were .09, .40, and .80 respectively for
small, medium, and large effect sizes. Alternatively, there has been no study
done relating public self-consciousness to any other emotional experiences.
Such a study could generate interesting findings not only for that particular
emotion under study, but also to better understand the role public
self-consciousness plays in all emotions.
Implications for Future Research
While absorption in a mathematical task may be a potential method
for coping with fright, there is still some ambiguity about the degree of task
difficulty necessary for attenuation without also adding to task-related anxiety
and stress. The ideal level of task difficulty still needs to be found
precisely. Perhaps if this balance is too tenuous given individual differences
in tolerance levels, alternative tasks such as reading or working on crossword
puzzles could be explored.
Not only does the effectiveness of different types and levels of
task require exploration, the exact nature of the interaction of this coping
strategy (by diverting attention) for individuals differing in the degree of
public self-consciousness is also unclear. More vigorous testing with larger
sample sizes and more variations in the duration of the task involvement must be
done. Perhaps a shorter delay in the waiting period between the time the
initial fright experience is measured and the time the final fright experience
is measured would show different results. No experiments, to date, have been
conducted on the duration of fright responses.
In summary, studies incorporating the following variables should,
more clearly, flesh out the roles that task distraction and public
self-consciousness play on the experience of fright and fright attenuation:
First, thought-listing exercises should be incorporated as control variables.
This would enable us to better understand the cognitive processes occurring in
subjects in the no task condition and might better explain the results.
Alternatively, the no task conditions could be revised to "control" subjects'
thoughts. This could be done by airing two versions of a radio broadcast, one
totally unrelated to fear or fright responses, and the other about pending
disasters or the like. In addition, physiological measures could be included
for better reliability of the findings. Second, different types of tasks should
be used to avoid the problem of difficulty levels and resultant stress.
Examples of such tasks could include the sorting of cards into their respective
decks, or reading passages of different difficulties. These tasks should not
involve any possibility of testing which could result in test anxiety. Third,
other individual difference variables could be controlled such as proneness to
test anxiety and achievement orientation. Fourth, the duration of the task
could be manipulated to help distinguish the point at which attenuation occurs.
This would also help us better understand when and if attenuation occurs without
being involved in any distracting tasks. Finally, and most importantly, samples
other than undergraduates should be studied for greater generalizability. These
samples should also be sufficiently large for multiple interactions analyses.
Because the present study had a limited number of subjects, even a two-way
analysis resulted in small cell sizes. This should be avoided in future
This study attempted to test and validate a coping strategy for
fright reactions to the media with the view that if fright reactions are dealt
with at its onset, longer-term consequences, such as paranoia, can be avoided.
Based on studies on depression and the methods of coping with depression, this
study hypothesized that task involvement would help attenuate fright in the
short-term by redirecting the cognitive attention required for the experience of
the emotion to another task. In addition, this study explored the role a
person's awareness of his/her actions and emotions played in the effectiveness
of using this strategy.
The study suggested that involvement in an easy task is more
effective in attenuating fright than a difficult task. The effectiveness of the
difficult task was unclear due to the greater amount of anxiety experienced by
subjects in this condition. In addition, although public self-consciousness
played a significant role in determining the amount of fright experienced and
the degree to which fright attenuated, the role of public self-consciousness was
unclear given that there was no clear pattern for the interaction between public
self-consciousness and difficulty of task.
Thus, although not all the hypotheses presented in this study have
been statistically supported, this study has been useful in explicating the
various issues that need to be considered when studying coping methods for
fright introduced after the fright experience. First, the issue of the primacy
of cognition or affect is one that researchers interested in this area must
consider carefully. The coping strategy that is proposed will depend to a great
extent on the position the researcher takes on this issue. As more research on
the components of emotion better informs us about the emotional experience, we
will be in a better position to formulate more comprehensive and inclusive
coping strategies for fright or other negative emotions. Second, public
self-consciousness has, for the first time, been introduced in the fright
literature and appears to be a meaningful individual difference variable that
should be considered in future studies. Finally, this study hopes to propel
more research in the area of coping after exposure to the frightening
experience, an area not currently emphasized in the communication literature.
Perhaps it is time to go beyond just effects and concentrate on how we can
counter these effects, especially the negative ones.
1. According to findings by Josephs & Steele (1990), "to act as a
suitable distractor from psychological stress, an activity should distract
attention without also inducing frustration and anxiety" (p. 125).
Blumer, H. (1970). Movies and conduct. N.Y.: Arno Press & The New
Cantor, J. (1994). Fright reactions to mass media. In J. Bryant, &
D. Zillmann (Eds.). Media effects: Advances in theory and research (pp.
213-245). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Cantor, J. (1991). Fright responses to mass media productions. In
J. Bryant, & D. Zillmann (Eds.). Responding to the screen: Reception and
reaction processes (pp. 169-197). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Cantor, J., & Sparks, G. (1984). Children's fear responses to mass
media: Testing some Piagetian predictions. Journal of Communication, 34,
Cantor, J., Sparks, G., & Hoffner, C. (1988). Calming children's
television fears: Mr. Rogers vs. The Incredible Hulk. Journal of Broadcasting
and Electronic Media, 32, 271-288.
Cantor, J., Ziemke, D., & Sparks, G.G. (1984). Effect of
forewarning on emotional responses to a horror film. Journal of Broadcasting,
Cantril, H. (1940). The invasion from Mars: A study in the
psychology of panic. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1981). Attention and
self-regulation: A control-theory approach to human behavior. NY:
Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral
sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, N.Y.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Connor, D. (1994, April 20). EPA's lead warning ad called
heavy-handed: TV spot yanked in the Northwest, where the hazard is believed
rare. Critics say costly tests aren't for everyone. Los Angeles (California)
Times [Newsbank: 1994 ENV 37:D10].
Cozby, P. C. (1972). Self-disclosure, reciprocity and liking.
Sociometry, 35, 151-160.
Denny, M. R. (1991). Relaxation/relief: The effect of removing,
postponing, or terminating aversive stimuli. In M. R. Denny (Ed.), Fear,
avoidance, and phobias: A fundamental analysis, (pp. 199-229). Hillsdale, NJ:
Erber, R., & Tesser, A. (1992). Task effort and the regulation of
mood: The absorption hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28,
Erber, R., & Erber, M. W. (1994). Beyond mood and social judgment:
Mood incongruent recall and mood regulation. European Journal of Social
Psychology, 24, 79-88.
Exorcist fever. (1974, February 11). Time, p. 53.
Fenigstein, A., Scheier, M. F., & Buss, A. H. (1975). Public and
private self-consciousness: Assessment and theory. Journal of Consulting and
Clinical Psychology, 43 (4), 522-527.
Frightful films spook fraidy cats. (1994, July). USA Today, p. 11.
Glidewell, J. (1993, December 18). How do we protect our children?
Kids, abducted and killed. For some adults, fear is now part of parenting. St.
Petersburg (Florida) Times [Newsbank: 1993 WEL 36:C11].
Hasher, L., & Zacks, R. T. (1979). Automatic and effortful
processes in memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108 (3),
Hoffner, C., & Cantor, J. (1985). Developmental differences in
responses to a television character's appearance and behavior. Developmental
Psychology, 21, 1065-1074.
Izard, C. E. (1971). The face of emotion. NY:
Josephs, R. A., & Steele, C. M. (1990). The two faces of alcohol
myopia: Attentional mediation of psychological stress. Journal of Abnormal
Psychology, 99 (2), 115-126.
Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
Lang, P.J. (1977). Imagery in therapy: An information processing
analysis of fear. Behavior Therapy, 8, 862-886.
Lazarus, R. S. (1984). On the primacy of cognition. American
Psychologist, 39, 124-129.
Leventhal, H. (1982). The integration of emotion and cognition: A
view from the perceptual-motor theory of emotion. In M.S. Clark & S.T. Fiske
(Eds.), Affect and cognition: The seventeenth annual carnegie symposium on
cognition (pp. 121-156). Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Monush, B. (Ed.) (1995). Internatonal motion picture almanac (66th
ed.). N.Y.: Quigley.
Morrow, J., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (1990). Effects of responses to
depression on the remediation of depressive affect. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 58, 519-527.
Mullen, B., Chapman, J. G., & Peaugh, S. (1989). Focus of attention
in groups: A self-attention perspective. Journal of Social Psychology, 129,
Ortony, A., Clore, G.L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive
structure of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reisenzein, R. (1983). The Schachter tehory of emotion: Two decades
later. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 239-164.
Salovey, P. (1992). Mood-induced self-focused attention. Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 699-707.
Scheier, M.F., & Carver, C.S. (1977). Self-focused attention and
the experience of emotion: Attraction, repulsion, elation, and depression.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35 (9), 625-636.
Scholle, S. R. (1992). A controlled study of sensation awareness
and verbal disclosure for regulation of arousal and anxiety. Perceptual and
Motor Skills, 74, 307-320.
Shepperd, J. A., & Arkin, R. M. (1989). Self-handcapping: The
moderating roles of public self-consciousness and task importance. Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 252-265.
Sparks, G. G. (1989a). The prevalence and intensity of fright
reactions to mass media: Implications of the activation-arousal view.
Communication Quarterly, 37(2), 108-117.
Sparks, G. G., & Spirek, M. M. (1988). Individual differences in
coping with stressful mass media: An activation-arousal view. Human
Communication Research, 15 (2), 195-216.
Sparks, G. G., Spirek, M. M., & Hodgson, K. (1993). Individual
differences in arousability: Implications for understanding immediate and
lingering emotional reactions to frightening mass media. Communication
Quarterly, 41, 465-476.
Stein, E. (1982, June 20). Have horror films gone too far? New
York Times, Arts & Leisure sect., p. 1, 21-22.
Tamborini, R., Salomonson, K., & Bahk, C. (1993). The relationship
of empathy to comforting behavior following film exposure. Communication
Research, 20 (5), 723-738.
Tamborini, R., Stiff, J., & Heidel, C. (1990). Reacting to graphic
horror: A model of empathy and emotional behavior. Communication Research, 17
Wegner, D. M., Erber, R., & Zanakos, S. (1993). Ironic processes in
mental control of mood and mood-related thought. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, 65, 1093-1104.
Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1987). The fallacy of the
private-public self-focus distinction. Journal of Personality, 55, 491-523.
Willis, D. C. (1972). Horror and science fiction films: A
checklist. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press.
Willis, D. C. (1982). Horror and science fiction films II.
Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press.
Wilson, B. J. (1987). Reducing children's emotional reactions to
mass media through rehearsed explanation and exposure to a replica of a fear
object. Human Communication Research, 14, 3-26.
Wilson, B. J. (1989). Desensitizing children's emotional reactions
to the mass media. Communication Research, 16 (6), 723-745.
Wilson, B. J. (1991). Children's reactions to dreams conveyed in
mass media programming. Communication Research, 18 (3), 283-305.
Wilson, B. J., & Cantor, J. (1985). Developmental differences in
empathy with a television protagonist's fear. Journal of Experimental Child
Psychology, 39, 284-299.
Wood, J. V., Saltzberg, J. A., Neale, J. M., Stone, A. A., &
Rachmiel, T. B. (1990). Self-focused attention, coping responses, and
distressed mood in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
Zillmann, D. (1971). Excitation transfer in communication-mediated
aggressive behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 419-434.
Zuckerman, M., & Lubin, B. (1965). Manual for the multiple afffect
adjective check list. C.A.: Educational and Industrial Testing Service.
Testing the absorption hypothesis developed by Erber and Tesser
(1992) as a method of coping with fright after film exposure, a 3 (math task
difficulty) X 2 (public self-consciousness) experiment was conducted. High
public self-consciousness significantly predicted greater fright and greater
fright attenuation. In addition, easy task was more effective in attenuating
fright than a difficult or no task. No clear interaction for public
self-consciousness and task difficulty was found. Implications are discussed.