What You Like Is What You Try to Get: Attitudes Toward Emotions and Situation Selection

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Why do people expose themselves to certain emotional stimuli and avoid others? We propose that what people want to feel is linked to attitudes toward emotions. In 3 studies, we show that individuals with more (vs. less) negative attitudes toward an emotion were more (vs. less) likely to avoid stimuli that induce that emotion. People who evaluated disgust (or joy) less favorably than others were less likely to expose themselves to disgusting (or joyful) pictures (Study 1). These links were emotion-specific and could not be explained by differences in state or trait emotion (Study 2) or in emotional reactivity (Study 3). We were further able to show that the choice of emotion-inducing stimuli affected emotional experience in a congruent manner. People with more (vs. less) negative attitudes toward disgust (or sadness) were more likely to avoid disgusting (or sad) stimuli, resulting in more intense experiences of disgust (or sadness; Study 2). Finally, people with more negative attitudes toward disgust chose to avoid more disgusting stimuli, whether attitudes were assessed explicitly or implicitly (Study 3). These findings suggest that people avoid stimuli that induce emotions that they evaluate less favorably, even when such evaluations are not consciously accessible.

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