Why Do Some People Enjoy Being Afraid?

Why do some people love to be afraid? Psychologists tell us we are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creatures and yet many are drawn to scary movies and other hair-raising experiences:

Audience members of an effective horror film often appear to react in much the same way as they would if they were confronted with a terrifying and disgusting situation outside the theater. They grimace, cower, dig their nails into their armrests, cover their eyes, and plead in vain for someone to make it stop. When they leave...many of them speak of the experience they just had with great enthusiasm and express eagerness to return for more of the same.

We humans are a strange species indeed. Psychologists call the enjoyment of painful emotions like disgust and fear, the “paradox of horror.” It turns out happiness and horror can go hand in hand. This makes no sense at all…or does it?Aristotle believed people are drawn to scary stuff because it provides a safe way to purge themselves of aggression and other negative emotions. A more modern interpretation is that artificially scary situations provide vicarious thrills, excitement, and an experience of being fully alive. Certainly some people are more arousal seeking than others and these adrenaline junkies are typically the same types who love roller coasters and bungee jumping. (Full disclosure: I would rather watch paint dry than sit through a Chuckie or Freddie Krueger film.)Watching a scary film can also be a bonding experience and cultivate connection between moviegoers for “surviving” the horror together. Fright facilitates canoodling and removes barriers that might otherwise inhibit close physical contact. A scary moment is the best excuse to grab someone’s hand or literally jump into their lap. Perhaps this helps explain why scary movies are so popular with couples on date nights.While there may be benefits to facing one’s fears in a horror movie, a study showed how watching a scary movie impacts subsequent decision-making. In the study, they showed half of the participants horror movies while the other half watched documentaries about Vincent Van Gogh and Benjamin Franklin. Afterwards, they were all asked to participate in a stock market simulation experiment. Those who watched horror movies were far more likely to sell early. The belief is that a scary experience triggered lingering fear and that this fear was projected onto decisions later on.Arthur Conan Doyle famously said:

“Where there is no imagination – there is no horror.”

Just don’t let your imagination run away with you.

Art: Does Location Matter?

If you want to increase the value of a painting, pay attention to where you hang it. What makes you fall in love with a painting? There are many reasons you might be drawn to a particular picture—maybe it's the colors or the brushstrokes or the image that captivates you. Perhaps it is the story behind a painting that brings it to life. I have always loved Cy Twombly but learning how Rilke’s poetry inspired the Rose series further deepened my appreciation. An interesting new study suggests an entirely different reason why a picture might appeal to you—where it hangs on the wall. Participants were asked to look at Wassily Kandinsky’s Sky Blue. They were randomly assigned to view it hanging in one of three locations on the wall: above eye level, at eye level or below eye level—and then asked to rate it.Those who evaluated the painting while looking up gave it the highest rating. Those who looked down upon it gave it the lowest rating. It is unclear why the painting’s physical location influenced participant’s reactions to the picture but researchers believe it may have something to do with the way a physical experience can influence emotions. For example, a Yale psychologist found that holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel more warmly towards strangers. In this case, gazing upwards at the Kandinsky may increase feelings of awe or inspiration whereas looking down on something may have the opposite effect. If only I knew that in 10th grade art class. I would have hung my abysmal paintings of my dog higher on the wall. Perhaps the art teacher would have liked them more…

Can Self-Comparison Be A Good Thing?

“Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.” It’s something mothers say all the time and yet it may be something we are hardwired to do.In the 1950s, Leon Festinger formulated what he called “social comparison theory”—it is a theory predicated on the idea that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we measure up to others. In other words, in the absence of objective means of evaluation, we are constantly evaluating ourselves—our intelligence, our attractiveness, wealth, success etc.—in reference to those around us. According to the theory, people prefer to compare themselves with others who are similar to them. After all, what would be the point of a novice pianist comparing themselves to Beethoven?There are upsides to social comparison. Students may feel more competent and confident when they compare themselves to other students who didn’t do as well on a biology test. It can also be a source of motivation—for example a runner may want to emulate the performance of a fellow runner who beats them by a tenth of a second. Likewise, comparisons can make us more grateful for what we have and put disappointments and hardships in perspective. The thought, “Perhaps I don’t have it so bad, after all” often comes to mind when we think of others who are less fortunate. This tends to ring true when we stop and think about the natural disasters affecting so many people across the United States and beyond right now. That said, there are many downsides to social comparison. Research suggests that unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons than happy people and it makes them feel worse whereas happy people are less affected by it. The tendency to seek social comparison is correlated with low self-esteem and depression.Comparing ourselves to others may be in our DNA but the context and comparisons have changed dramatically with social media. Rather than making comparisons to people who are in the same boat as we are, we now have a global landscape to draw from. Research explains:

As people are increasingly relying on social networking sites for a variety of everyday tasks, they risk overexposure to upward social comparison information that may have a cumulative detrimental impact on wellbeing. Moreover, as prior research has show that people with low self-esteem often use social networking sites to express themselves in what they perceive to be a safe environment, this may result in a vicious cycle of using social networking sites to receive social support but therein exposing themselves to upward social comparison information—impairing self-esteem and restarting the cycle.

Mass media is one of the commanding influences today for social comparison and studies show it takes a toll on our wellbeing:

Research has found that women who report frequently comparing themselves to other women, especially women in the media, are more likely to show signs of negative mood and body image disturbance (Schooler et al., 2004). Tiggemann and Mcgill (2004) found that women participants’ brief exposure to media images of females led to increased levels of body dissatisfaction and weight anxiety. 

In fact, 70 percent of women feel depressed after looking at a woman’s fashion magazine for just three minutes! Looking at images of friends’ “perfect lives” on social media has been shown to have a similar effect. Amazing parties, fabulous photos of people having a ball without us, and picture perfect images of a stress-free life can trigger resentment, envy and low self-esteem. We forget that these pictures are highly curated to portray life at its best—the in-between, non-Photoshopped moments when the kids are melting down while the souffle deflates rarely make the social media cut.The important thing to keep in mind is that these images are not reality. Studies show that when images are viewed with this in mind and with an understanding that the images represent a fantasy, they have less of a negative effect and can even improve mood.As one saying goes:

“You will never look like the girl in the magazine. The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.”

Bottom line: Enjoy these images for the fantasy, the beauty, the inspiration and the creativity. Remember that they have nothing to do with reality.

No, Your Partner Should Not Be Your One and Only

Not all stress is created equal. An argument with your significant other has been found to be by far the most upsetting of all daily stressors. As one patient told me, fighting with his wife in the morning sets a negative tone for the rest of the day. He described it as a dark cloud that hangs over him and follows him around until the issue is resolved.In addition to taking an emotional toll, there is a physical cost to relationship disharmony. Negative interactions can impact the immune system and cardiovascular function.  A couple’s therapist might encourage a bickering couple to work on conflict resolution and to spend more quality time together. A recent study offers another important way to protect oneself from the harmful effects of conflict: Having good friends. Researchers at the University of Austin, Texas, asked 105 newlywed couples to keep a daily diary of marital conflict and to complete questionnaires about their social interactions outside of the marriage. The couples provided morning and evening saliva samples so the researchers could measure levels of cortisol, a hormone the body produces in direct association with physiological stress. The findings indicate that having a few good friends to lean on can buffer against the stress of everyday conflict with one’s partner. Participants with high quality social support experienced lower levels of stress when marital conflicts arose. It is worth noting that the number of friends didn’t impact the couple’s ability to handle conflict—it was the quality of the social interactions that counted. Knowing that someone has your back makes every challenge a little bit easier. There is a lesson here.  If you are in a relationship, don’t forget to make an effort with your friends. Having a shoulder to lean on that is outside of your relationship will enhance your connection with your “one and only.” When there is trouble in paradise, you can turn to your friends to help you weather the storm.  Friends don’t just make life better, they make marriages happier.      

Are People Out to Get You?

“Do you ever feel that people are out to get you?”I ask new patients this question. I am trying to assess whether the person has paranoid ideation—an exaggerated belief that they are being harassed or treated unfairly. A paranoid person might interpret a seemingly benign as confirmation that they are being targeted. Bird poop landing on their head is proof of a conspiracy. Paranoid ideation may suggest something serious like schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, especially when it is observed in combination with additional odd or unusual thoughts. That said, there are many people who feel like the universe is conspiring against them who do not suffer from a serious mental illness. They may simply be pessimists or, as they call themselves, realists.  Sometimes people feel this way when they are stressed out or feeling overwhelmed. When each day seems like a game of Wac-a-mole, it is easy to become defensive or take things personally. Every negative experience is seen as further evidence that the world is a hostile place full of selfish people. Even an ambiguous interaction or incident gets interpreted negatively. Daily stress reduces willingness to give someone the benefit of the doubt. If the barista doesn’t put enough milk in their latte, she is incompetent. If a spouse forgets to pick up the laundry, he is self-centered.  It’s a slippery slope. When someone thinks this way, it is challenging to convince them otherwise. Every rain drop is a personal affront. As one patient put it, “it’s me against the world.” For those who are stuck in a me-versus-the-world mindset, I have found it is sometimes helpful for them to imagine an entirely different orientation. Instead of paranoia, I ask them to consider the concept of “pronoia”—the unshakable belief that others are out to help them. It’s a fundamental belief in the goodness in others and in the world. Pronoia may be detrimental if taken too literally, but overall, it is a useful concept. I find it is most helpful when we use it, not to challenge beliefs about ourselves, but when we use it to challenge the way we view others. It is tempting to assume negative intent and that people do not wish us well. As children, we learn not to trust other people and to guard against being taken advantage of or harmed by malicious strangers.  These feelings are amplified when we are stressed out and in survival mode. For most of us, our default mode is to assume the worst. As a child, I assumed the worst about the nurse who worked in my pediatrician's office. She was the one who gave me shots. I am told that I bit her on one occasion (I swear I don’t recall) so I imagine she wasn’t particularly fond of me either. In my mind, she was a heartless and cruel woman who loved jabbing needles into the bony upper arms of defenseless sweet children like me. Looking back, I recognize that her hostility was probably all in my head.   Studies show that how we read other people’s intentions shapes our experience of the world. When we assume negative intent, as I did with the nurse, our experience is far more unpleasant than when we perceive that they wish us well.  A study by University of Maryland’s Kurt Gray underscores the power of perception: in the study, entitled The Power of Good Intentions, three groups were given identical unpleasant electric shocks by a person they were paired with. The first group was told that the shock was by accident and beyond their partner’s awareness. The second group was told that they were being shocked on purpose but for no reason. The third group was told that they were being shocked on purpose because another person was trying to help them win money. Those in this third group experienced significantly less pain than those in the other two groups.Assuming positive intent has implications beyond this experiment and my interactions with a pediatric nurse. As Gray explains:
To the extent that we view others as benevolent instead of malicious, the harms they inflict upon us should hurt less, and the good things they do for us should cause more pleasure…Stolen parking places cut less deep when we think well of others."
I wish I had known this years ago. The shots from the pediatric nurse might have hurt less and I probably wouldn't have bitten her. Yes, life is definitely a little better when we assume positive intent. Pepsi Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi underscores the benefits of this mindset in the workplace and beyond:
My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you're angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. 
Go ahead and amaze yourself.



Cherry Bombe

Kerry Diamond

Bringing food and fashion together, co-founder of Cherry Bombe, Kerry Diamond, dishes on the gorgeous new cook cookbook, pet peeves, favorite works of art and fictional crushes. 


Why Do Some People Enjoy Being Afraid?

Why do some people love to be afraid? Psychologists tell us we are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creatures and yet many are drawn to scary...

Art: Does Location Matter?

If you want to increase the value of a painting, pay attention to where you hang it.What makes you fall in love with...

Can Self-Comparison Be A Good Thing?

“Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.” It’s something mothers say all the time and yet it may be something we are hardwired to do.In...

No, Your Partner Should Not Be Your One and Only

Not all stress is created equal. An argument with your significant other has been found to be by far the most upsetting of all...

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