Excitation-Transfer Theory

Ever heard of overreacting? Such as when lovers, after yelling their heads off arguing, make up and experience unusually strong sexual pleasures? Or when a disagreement escalates from silly to serious, prompts an exchange of insults, and ends with bloody noses? Or when the girl who went along to a horror movie is so terrified that she snuggles up on her companion and finds him irresistibly attractive? It seems that even the most rational people are not immune to such overreacting. The famous philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, for instance, let the world know that his sexual experience was never more intense than during extreme fear, when his bedroom was lit up by exploding grenades during the Nazis’ bombardment of London. There is ample research evidence that supports this unlikely enhancement of pleasure by fear. Samuel Klausner observed, for example, that newcomers to parachuting tend to experience considerable fear before jumping but also intense joy upon landing. As jumping becomes routine and fear diminishes, joy fades away along with the fear.

The facilitation of pleasure in the aftermath of fear and similarly unpleasant reactions is by no means the only transition in which an earlier emotion intensifies a following one. The intensification occurs, no matter whether the prior and the subsequent emotions are pleasant or unpleasant. For instance, prior elation can enhance ensuing distress as readily as prior grief ensuing merriment. Likewise, prior anger can enhance ensuing rage as readily as prior gaiety ensuing exuberance. Dolf Zillmann proposed a theory of excitation transfer to explain this puzzling intensification of emotions that materialize in the aftermath of other emotional experiences.

Excitation as the Driving Force in Emotion

Excitation-Transfer TheoryExcitation-transfer theory focuses on physiological manifestations of bodily arousal. All vital emotions are known to be accompanied by elevated sympathetic reactivity in the autonomic nervous system. According to the emergency theory of emotion advanced by Walter Cannon, the primary function of this reactivity is to provide energy for a burst of action to allow the organism to cope effectively with acute behavioral challenges. As coping via immediate physical action is rarely productive in contemporary situations of challenge, much of this energy provision has become defunct, if not dysfunctional. Such energizing excitatory reactivity has been retained nonetheless, mostly because of its mediation by archaic brain structures, as detailed by Joseph LeDoux and others. This reactivity still generates agitation that favors action over inaction. Via feedback, such as heart pounding, palm sweating, or trembling hands, it fosters cognizance of the degree of bodily arousal. It ultimately signals emotional intensity and thus drives the experience and expression of emotions.

Cognitive and Excitatory Adjustment to Environmental Change

The time course of cognitive and excitatory reactions to emotion-arousing changes in the environment differs greatly. Cognitive adjustment to such 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 comes about only after considerable passage of time. The latency of excitatory responding may be negligible, but the duration of excitatory reactivity is not. Once instigated, this activity runs its course even after the instigating emotional challenge has ceased to exist and, owing to rapid cognitive adjustment, another emotion has come about.

Emotion Intensification by Leftover Excitation

Excitation-transfer theory is based on the apparent discrepancy in adjustment time. It addresses the consequences of persisting sympathetic excitation from an earlier instigated emotion for subsequently instigated emotions that may be different in kind. Specifically, the theory predicts that whenever particular circumstances evoke an emotional reaction at a time when portions of excitation are left over from preceding emotions, the leftover portions combine inseparably with newly instigated excitation and thus produce a total of excitatory activity whose intensity is greater than that specific to the new instigation alone. Leftover excitation may thus be considered to have artificially intensified the newly triggered emotion. In other words, the response to the new situation amounts to an overreaction.

An Illustration of Excitation Transfer

Imagine a lady 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 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. However, upon looking once more at the object of her terror, she recognizes 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 being angry 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 leftover excitation from this reaction then intensified the emotion of volatile anger and, thereafter, the experience of amusement in fits of hysterical laughter. In short, leftover excitation fostered overreactions in a string of different emotions.

Supportive Evidence

Emotion-enhancing excitation transfer has been demonstrated in numerous experiments. Dolf Zillmann and his collaborators have shown, for instance, that sympathetic excitation left over from sexual excitement can intensify such diverse emotions as anger, aggression, sadness, humor, and altruism. In the reverse direction, sympathetic excitation left over from either fear or anger proved capable of enhancing sexual attraction and sexual behaviors. In the realm of entertainment, moreover, excitation-transfer theory has been used to explain the facilitation of enjoyment in the aftermath of evoked aversions. Based on the observation that leftover excitation from feelings of tension, suspense, and terror is capable of intensifying experiences of joy and elation, strategies could be devised for the ultimate enjoyment of drama by the optimal arrangement of foregoing emotion-evoking events.


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