Why Do People Like to Be Scared?

New research explores why many people seek out scary experiences.

Posted Jun 12, 2019

What makes movies that are sad or scary so popular? For that matter, why do people enjoy roller-coasters, bungee jumping, or any of the countless other activities that seem to serve no purpose except to make people feel terrified, however briefly? Is there a positive benefit to exposing yourself to these kinds of intense negative experiences? According to recent studies, there may be.

In looking at the impact of voluntary, arousing, negative experiences (known as VANE for short), researchers have largely focused on the physiological changes that can occur. But, along with sweating, rapid heart rate, and hyperventilation, new evidence suggests that VANE exposure can also play an important role in helping people learn to handle stress. Previous studies looking at different ways of taking people "out of themselves", such as meditation, sexual activity, and intense mental or physical exertion, have shown that they can all reduce brain activity in those regions of the brain linked to "fight or flight."  In a sense, they help the brain to "shut down," thus reducing the panic or "overthinking" that might otherwise cause people to freeze in crisis situations.

But does this extend to VANE exposure as well? To understand how this would apply, we need to consider the Adaptive Calibration Model of Stress Responsivity (ACM). According to this model, high arousal to stressful experiences helps shape the way that we respond to other high-arousal situations in the future. This means that exposure to these kinds of experiences can teach us how to handle adverse emotions more effectively. 

So how could VANE exposure provide this kind of benefit? To answer that, we need to understand that these are experiences we choose to have (hence the "V" in VANE). Though we are always going to be upset when we encounter negative situations without warning, making a conscious choice to see a scary movie or riding a roller coaster means that we are the ones in control. As research studies have shown, humans and animals deal with stress much better when they can have a way to control what they are experiencing (being able to press a bar to stop an electric shock, for example) than if the negative experience occurred completely at random.   

Another factor that makes VANE exposure enjoyable for many people is that it is usually seen as a way of being social. Most people don't go to see scary movies or watch scary television shows alone, they prefer to have family and friends on hand to share what they are experiencing.   Not only does this allow people to share what they are feeling but this sense of sharing helps bring loved ones closer together. In that way, we not only choose where and when we expose ourselves to VANE, but we often turn it into a "scary/fun" experience that we can look back on in a positive way.  

A new research study published in the journal Emotion provides evidence for the positive benefits that VANE exposure can have. Written by Margee Kerr and Greg J. Siegle of the University of Pittsburgh and Jahala Orsini of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the study was conducted on-site at the "Scarehouse," an extreme haunted house attraction which is billed as "Pittsburgh's scariest haunted house." Kerr was employed at the Scarehouse during the course of the data collection, though she is now teaching at the University of Pittsburgh.   

The study used a sample of 262 adults (139 women and 123 men) who had purchased tickets but who had not experienced the Scarehouse previously. All participants completed pre- and post- VANE questionnaires which collected demographic information as well as self-report ratings of their emotional response to the Scarehouse and whether they enjoyed high-VANE activities in general. Of the original sample, 100 also agreed to take part in an EEG assessment using portable headsets provided by the researchers.  

For the EEG part of the study, participants wore the EEG headsets while completing a series of cognitive tasks including the Continuous Performance Test to test sustained attention. During the course of these tasks, participants were exposed to a "startle" condition with loud startle sounds played randomly at the computer's maximum volume. They were also shown a series of pictures taken from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS). These pictures were calibrated to show neutral images, negative high-arousal pictures (including interpersonal violence and mutilation), and positive high-arousal pictures (including erotica).

Not surprisingly, given that most of the participants were first-time visitors to the Scarehouse, the overwhelming majority reported enjoying themselves afterward. What was also interesting was that people who reported feeling stressed, bored, or tired prior to VANE exposure experienced the greatest gains in terms of improved emotion and brain activity. People were also more likely to feel as if they had challenged their fears and learned more about themselves after voluntarily participating in an activity that scared them. As for the EEG results, researchers found that VANE exposure led to widespread deactivation of different areas of the brain, particularly in people who reported the greatest benefit. This is similar to prior research showing that decreased brain activity improves our ability to cope with stress or threatening situations.  

As for the benefits of different coping strategies, including eye-closing and hand-holding, results showed that people were generally better able to handle threats if they had someone to share the experience with than if they did it alone. Not only did handholding and other forms of social contact make people feel safer, but they were less likely to react to perceived threats around them. VANE exposure also seems to change the way that people process information as well as allowing for the testing of mental and physical reactions under controlled conditions. In a sense, VANE provides the opportunity to learn more about endurance and build up resilience to frightening situations.   

There are some significant limitations to this research. Along with the difficulties involved in conducting a psychological study in a haunted house attraction, all of the study participants were Scarehouse customers who had already chosen to attend. But what about people who don't enjoy being exposed to VANE situations? Are there significant differences in coping between the "thrill-seeking" types who enjoy frightening experiences and those who don't? For that matter, would these same results have been found if the researchers had used stronger and more reliable measures of stress and brain functioning?  

While more research needs to be done, the evidence to date does suggest that VANE exposure allows people to practice how they might react in situations far different from their daily experience. In much the same way that competitive sports can push people to exceed their physical and mental boundaries, VANE exposure can also help take people "out of themselves" and learn how to handle their negative emotions more effectively. Thus, as Justine Musk famously pointed out, "Fear is a powerful beast. But we can learn to ride it."

References

Kerr, Margee,Siegle, Greg J.,Orsini, Jahala.  Voluntary arousing negative experiences (VANE): Why we like to be scared. Emotion, Vol 19(4), Jun 2019, 682-698

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