Affective Valence Signals Agency Within and Between Individuals

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Abstract

Affective valence is a core component of all emotional experiences. Building on recent evidence and theory, we reason that valence informs individuals about their agency—the mental capability of doing and intending. Expressed affect may also lead to perceptions of agency by others. Supporting the hypothesis that valence influences self- and other-perception of agency, across 5 studies, we showed that participants perceived more agency in themselves in positive versus neutral and negative personal (Study 1) and interpersonal (Study 2) events. Participants also perceived more agency in fictional characters showing positive versus negative affect, regardless of how acceptable the characters’ behavior was (Studies 3 and 4). Finally, we had participants personify 24 specific emotions across the valence dimension, and found that the more positive and less negative an emotion was, the more agency participants ascribed to the “person” (Study 5). We discuss the results in terms of how valence may help with human self- and social regulation.

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