Canned Emotions. Effects of Genre and Audience Reaction on Emotions

in Art & Perception
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Laughter is said to be contagious. Maybe this is why TV stations often choose to add so-called canned laughter to their shows. Questionable as this practice may be, observers seem to like it. If such a simple manipulation, assumingly by inducing positive emotion, can change our attitudes toward the film, does the opposite manipulation work as well? Does a negative sound-track, such as screaming voices, have comparable effects in the opposite direction? We designed three experiments with a total of 110 participants to test whether scream-tracks have comparable effects on the evaluation of film sequences as do laugh-tracks. Experiment 1 showed segments of comedies, scary, and neutral films and crossed them with three sound tracks of canned laughter, canned screams, and no audience sound. Observers had to rate the degree of their subjective amusement and fear as well as general liking and immersion. The sound-tracks had independent effects on amusement and fear, and increased immersion when the sound was appropriate. Experiment 2 was identical, but instead of canned sounds, confederates of the experimenter enacted the sound-track. Here, the effects were even stronger. Experiment 3 manipulated social pressure by explicit evaluations of the film clips, which were particularly influential in comedies. Scream tracks worked as well as laugh tracks, in particular when the film was only mildly funny or scary. The information conveyed by a sound track is able to change the evaluation of films regardless of their emotional nature.



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  • Mean intensity of emotional ratings for the target emotions, from 0 (not at all) to 8 (very strong). Error bars represent standard deviations.

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  • Set-up of Experiments 1 and 2. The seats marked in gray were only present in the second experiment. Subscript numbers indicate to which experiment/s the seats belonged. The pre-study took place in the same room with a very similar set-up. E = experimenter, S = subject, C = confederate.

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  • Mean scores of the dependent variables amusement (Fig. 3A) and fear (Fig. 3B) divided by genre and audience sound. Ratings ranged from 0 (not at all) to 8 (very strongly). Error bars indicate standard error of the mean.

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  • Means and standard deviations for the target emotions amusement (A) and fear (B). Values ranged from 0 (not at all) to 8 (very much). Error bars indicate SEM.

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  • Set-up of Experiment 3. E = experimenter, C1–3 = confederates, S = subject, TA = technical assistant.

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  • Inconsistent pressure led to a stronger deviation from the original movie rating than inconsistent pressure. Error bars represent standard deviation.

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