Do We Improve, Disrupt, or Embrace Sadness? Exploring Sadness-Based
Media Choice and Its Anticipated Effects on Coping
Jinhee Kim (Graduate)
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
H1b: Sad individuals will be more likely than neutral individuals to
prefer media content presenting a strong absorbing potential (e.g., quiz
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
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
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.