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Journal Article

Does it matter how you ask? Self-reported emotions to depictions of need-of-help and social context

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Brielmann, A., & Stolarova, M. (2015). Does it matter how you ask? Self-reported emotions to depictions of need-of-help and social context. BMC Psychology, 3: 10, pp. 1-16. doi:10.1186/s40359-015-0066-3.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-6AC1-8
Background: When humans observe other people's emotions they not only can relate but also experience similar affective states. This capability is seen as a precondition for helping and other prosocial behaviors. Our study aims to quantify the influence of help-related picture content on subjectively experienced affect. It also assesses the impact of different scales on the way people rate their emotional state. Methods: The participants (N=242) of this study were shown stimuli with help-related content. In the first subset, half the drawings depicted a child or a bird needing help to reach a simple goal. The other drawings depicted situations where the goal was achieved. The second subset showed adults either actively helping a child or as passive bystanders. We created control conditions by including pictures of the adults on their own. Participants were asked to report their affective responses to the stimuli using two types of 9-point scales. For one half of the pictures, scales of arousal (calm to excited) and of bipolar valence (unhappy to happy) were employed; for the other half, unipolar scales of pleasantness and unpleasantness (strong to absent) were used. Results: Even non-dramatic depictions of simple need-of-help situations were rated systematically lower in valence, higher in arousal, less pleasant and more unpleasant than corresponding pictures with the child or bird not needing help. The presence of a child and adult together increased pleasantness ratings compared to pictures in which they were depicted alone. Arousal was lower for pictures showing only an adult than for those including a child. Depictions of active helping were rated similarly to pictures showing a passive adult bystander, when the need-of-help was resolved. Aggregated unipolar pleasantness and unpleasantness ratings accounted well for arousal and even better for bipolar valence ratings and for content effects on them. Conclusion: This is the first study to report upon the meaningful impact of harmless need-of-help content on self-reported emotional experience. It provides the basis for further investigating the links between subjective emotional experience and active prosocial behavior. It also builds upon recent findings on the correspondence between emotional ratings on bipolar and unipolar scales.