Do We Improve, Disrupt, or Embrace Sadness? Exploring Sadness-Based Media Choice and Its Anticipated Effects on Coping
Student researcher

Jinhee Kim (Graduate)

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. Mary Beth Oliver

For a complete report of this research, see:

Kim, J., & Oliver, M. B. (2007). Do we improve, disrupt, or embrace sadness? Exploring sadness-based media choice and its anticipated effects on coping. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Montreal, Canada.


Sadness, unlike other negative feelings, is unique in that its main causes are related to unpreventable and irreversible harm without any blamable objects. Due to these characteristics, previous theories of media use that center on enjoyment-focused use are not sufficient to explain sad viewers’ media use that is often inconsistent with hedonism-driven selection. To provide clues to understanding sadness-based media choice, the present study explores (a) cognitive antecedents that result in sad feelings (irrevocable loss of or separation from valuable people); identifies (b) people’s perceived salient goals in regard to coping with the sad feelings (improving, distracting, or embracing); and suggests (c) media genres that have structural similarities to the goals that sad people want to fulfill (comedy, game show, or sad drama). In addition to predicting media choices that are congruent with sad people’s perceived salient goals, anticipated emotional and cognitive outcomes resulting from the use of three media genres are included as potential mediators between sadness and media selection.

Research Questions/ Hypotheses:

A total of four research hypotheses were posited to predict sad viewers’ media choice. If Zillmann’s theory is correct, sad viewers will choose content to satisfy the goal of hedonism—replacing sad feelings with pleasant ones.

H1a: Sad individuals will be more likely than neutral individuals to prefer media content presenting positive hedonic values (e.g., comedies).

Zillmann’s theory also predicts that sad people prefer media content presenting absorbing potential (devoid of humor) to effectively disrupt sad feelings.

H1b: Sad individuals will be more likely than neutral individuals to prefer media content presenting a strong absorbing potential (e.g., quiz shows).

Building on theory of coping with sadness, it is hypothesized that sad individuals seek to view sad dramas to satisfy goals of gaining new perspectives and insight into their sad life events. Additionally, theories of catharsis and meta-mood experience that focus on favorable emotional benefits also predict preference for this genre.

H1c: Sad individuals will be more likely than neutral individuals to prefer sadness-inducing media (e.g., sad dramas).

Finally, if goals of sadness-regulation are affected by emotion-socialization processes, males and females would have distinct goals of sadness regulation and therefore, they would choose different media genres.

H2: While sad females will be more likely than sad males to prefer sadness-inducing media (consistent with H1c), sad males will be more likely than sad females to prefer either hedonically pleasant or absorbing content (consistent with H1a or H1b).

Finally, in order to determine theoretical processes that will significantly mediate the relationship between sadness and preference for sad dramas, a series of path analyses with multiple mediators will be conducted.

RQ1: Among theories of meta-mood, catharsis beliefs, downward social comparison, and positive re-interpretations, which mechanisms play a significant role(s) in mediating the relationship between sadness and preference for sadness-inducing media?


One-hundred undergraduate students (60 females and 40 males) participated in the present study. A 2 (Affect: Sad or Neutral) X 3 (Media Genre: Sad Drama, Comedy, or Game Show) X 2 (Gender) mixed-design experiment with affect and gender as between-subjects factors and media genre as a within-subjects factor was conducted to examine sad viewers’ media choice. Anticipated reactions (i.e., both feelings and thoughts) when choosing each of the three media genres were also measured to explore theoretical mechanisms underlying each media choice. Anticipate feelings included Unhappy, Elated, Annoyed, and Calm feelings. Anticipated thoughts included Cognitive Learning, Catharsis Beliefs, Meta-Mood Experience, Distraction, and Entertainment.


A 2 (Affect: Sad or Neutral) X 2 (Gender) X 3 (Genre: Sad Drama, Comedy, or Game Show) repeated measures analysis of variance employing a multivariate approach was conducted to examine how relative media preferences vary as a function of manipulated affect and the participant’s gender. This analysis revealed a significant main effect for Genre, Wilks’ ? = .31, F (2, 95) = 106.76, p < .001, ?p2 = .69, showing that most participants preferred to watch comedies (M = 5.58a, SE = .12) over sad dramas (M = 3.90b, SE = .14) or game shows (M = 3.65b, SE = .14). However, the hypothesized expected interaction for Mood X Genre was not significant, Wilks’ ? = .98, F (2, 95) = 1.04, p = .36, ?p2 = .02.

Although these findings suggest that media choice does not vary as a function of manipulated affect (i.e., non-significant simple or total effects), sadness may indirectly affect individuals’ media choice through certain intervening variables. Therefore, mediation analyses for each genre employing bootstrapping procedures were conducted to assess specific indirect effects of sadness on media preference through anticipated four emotional and five cognitive responses respectively. Results showed that two specific indirect effects were significant with anticipated emotional responses as mediators: Sadness indirectly affected low levels of preference for comedies and game shows through anticipated unhappy feelings (estimated indirect effect = -.04, -.097 < CI < -.001) and anticipated annoyed feelings (estimated indirect effect = -.04, -.105 < CI < -.001) respectively. Additionally, one specific indirect effect was significant with anticipated cognitive responses as mediators: Sadness indirectly affected preference for sad dramas through anticipated learning outcomes (estimated indirect effect = .05, .0001 < CI < .134).



Figures. Path diagrams with anticipated feelings or thoughts as mediators.

Note 1. +p < .10, *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001. Regression coefficients (B) are near arrows. Mediators highlighted with gray colors represent significant specific indirect effects at p < .05.
Note 2. Numbers inside parentheses are total effects of sadness on preference for comedies, game shows, and sad dramas respectively, without including mediators.


Findings suggest that although most sad viewers wanted to watch comedies over sad dramas or game shows, some of them preferred to watch sad dramas. In this case, their main goal of sadness regulation was to embrace sad feelings through transforming their pessimistic thoughts into positive ones, indicating that some sad viewers use media for purposes other than simple hedonism. Therefore, sad dramas with their powerful, informed, inspiring, and philosophical messages could be useful resources for such a cognitive coping strategy. Additionally, findings showing that some sad viewers avoided either comedies or game shows call for greater attention to theorize the nature of their underlying theoretical mechanisms. These avoidance tendencies may imply that media portrayals of celebrations and daily pleasure may not be desirable for some viewers and entertaining or distracting experiences from media consumption are not always functional.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. Mary Beth Oliver by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 863-5552

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University