Psychological distance and emotional experience: what you see is what you get

Emotion. 2011 Apr;11(2):438-44. doi: 10.1037/a0021783.


Recent research suggests that perceiving negative emotion-eliciting scenes approaching intensifies the associated felt emotion, while perceiving emotion-eliciting scenes receding weakens the associated felt emotion (Muhlberger, Neumann, Wieser, & Pauli, 2008). In the present studies, we sought to extend these findings by examining the effects of imagining rather than perceiving such changes to negative emotion-eliciting scenes. Across three studies, we found that negative scenes generally elicited less negative responses and lower levels of arousal when imagined moving away from participants and shrinking, and more negative responses and higher levels of arousal when imagined moving toward participants and growing, as compared to the responses elicited by negative scenes when imagined unchanged. Patterns in responses to neutral scenes undergoing the same imagined transformations were similar on ratings of emotional arousal, but differed on valence-generally eliciting greater positivity when imagined moving toward participants and growing, and less positivity when imagined moving away from participants and shrinking. Moreover, for these effects to emerge, participants reported it necessary to explicitly imagine scenes moving closer or farther. These findings have implications for emotion regulation, and suggest that imagined spatial distance plays a role in mental representations of emotionally salient events.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Social Perception
  • Space Perception
  • Young Adult