The Relation Between Valence and Arousal in Subjective Experience

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Affect is basic to many if not all psychological phenomena. This article examines 2 of the most fundamental properties of affective experience—valence and arousal—asking how they are related to each other on a moment to moment basis. Over the past century, 6 distinct types of relations have been suggested or implicitly presupposed in the literature. We critically review the available evidence for each proposal and argue that the evidence does not provide a conclusive answer. Next, we use statistical modeling to verify the different proposals in 8 data sets (with Ns ranging from 80 to 1,417) where participants reported their affective experiences in response to experimental stimuli in laboratory settings or as momentary or remembered in natural settings. We formulate 3 key conclusions about the relation between valence and arousal: (a) on average, there is a weak but consistent V-shaped relation of arousal as a function of valence, but (b) there is large variation at the individual level, so that (c) valence and arousal can in principle show a variety of relations depending on person or circumstances. This casts doubt on the existence of a static, lawful relation between valence and arousal. The meaningfulness of the observed individual differences is supported by their personality and cultural correlates. The malleability and individual differences found in the structure of affect must be taken into account when studying affect and its role in other psychological phenomena.

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