Why We're Suckers for Sorrow

Some research proposes that sorrow in fiction might be a form of psychological relief. A more fruitful explanation is that important virtues, values and morals that elicit uplifting emotions accompany sad moments in fiction. 

One paradox of good fiction is that it centers on sadness. If fiction gives us pleasure, then why are we drawn towards what’s gravely unpleasant? Think about classics in the Western cannon. Romeo and Juliet ends with a double suicide; Anna Karenina throws herself in front of an oncoming train; in versions of Goethe’s Faust the Devil carries the protagonist off to hell; Santiago returns empty handed in The Old Man and the Sea

There are few possible reasons why we’re suckers for sorrow. Sad stories make us feel better because they give us a chance to compare ourselves to individuals and circumstances that are worse than our own - life might be tough, but at least I’m not dead like Romeo and Juliet. Some research proposes that sorrow in fiction might be a form of psychological relief. A more fruitful explanation is that important virtues, values and morals that elicit uplifting emotions accompany sad moments in fiction. 

This brings me to professor Mary Beth Oliver, Co-Director of Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State. In a recently published paper in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly co-authored with Tilo Hartmann and Julia K. Woolley, Oliver argues that a key part of meaningful entertainment is that it elicits a sense of elevation, or the warm sentiment we feel when we witness acts of moral beauty or characters who embody moral virtues. People flock to sad stories not for the sadness, Oliver says, but to experience these feel-good moments that sadness brings out.

[T]he enjoyment of many examples of entertainment that have been labeled as ‘‘sad’’ or as ‘‘tear-jerkers’’ may be described, in part, in terms of the experience of elevation in response to meaningful entertainment—an affective state associated with unique elicitors, emotional and physical responses, and motivational outcomes.

To test how meaningful entertainment (in which characters portray moral virtues) elicits elevation and enacts moral virtues Oliver gathered 483 participants and instructed them to complete a questionnaire asking about films they found pleasurable and meaningful. The participants then rated how important a number of values were in the films they selected. Oliver and her team focused on three altruistic values (e.g., caring for the weak) because they are linked to moral excellence, which evokes elevation.

Oliver also had the participants rate their affective response to the films in terms of three categories: meaningful affect, positive affect, and negative affect. The purpose of this measurement was to evaluate how each film evoked “mixed affect,” the feeling of being happy and sad at the same time. Finally, Oliver asked the participants how they physically responded to the films (e.g., tears or chills) and to list how the movie motivated them to behave in the future (e.g., be a better person, do something good for others, seek what really matters in life).

What Oliver and her colleagues were testing was not just if moral virtues would be featured more in meaningful films (compared to pleasurable films) but also if meaningful films were more likely to elicit mixed affect, trigger physical responses associated with elevation and motivate the participants to embody or enact moral virtues. Is sadness in fiction attractive because it makes people want to be a better human being? Results for each hypothesis varied but this is precisely what they found:

[P]articipants in the meaningful-film condition rated all three altruistic values as more central to their film than did participants in the pleasurable-film condition… [they] reported stronger meaningful- and mixed-affective responses than did participants in the pleasurable condition… [And] meaningful films were associated with feelings of wanting to be a better person and to do good things for others: seeking what matters in life, living life in a better way, and adjusting one’s life to what is truly desired.

How, exactly, does this shed light on the “sad-film paradox?” Several years ago Professor of Social Psychology Jonathan Haidt teamed with Professor of Psychology Sara Algoe to conduct a clever study. They showed participants uplifting videos about heroes and altruists – they included clips from the Oprah Winfrey show – and instructed them to describe what they felt and what they wanted to do. Haidt and Algoe also had participants keep a diary over a few weeks and write down moments where someone did something good for someone else. The purpose of these instructions was to induce and identify elevation.

They discovered that elevation is not just a form of happiness but a distinct physiological reaction where people describe themselves as “moved” and wanting to help others. As Haidt says, “these emotional reactions involved warm or pleasant feelings in the chest and conscious desire to help others or become a better person.” This helps explain the sad-film paradox. Sad films display instances of moral beauty and moral excellence that implant a powerful need to "do good" in the moviegoer. Despite the sorrow, we're elevated for a few moments before returning to everyday life

In The Happiness Hypothesis Haidt quotes Thomas Jefferson who captured this sentiment perfectly:

When any… act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with it beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise. 

One more idea. The paradox of sadness in fiction applies to other undesirable emotions. The Odyssey, Oedipus, and Hamlet are rife with death, betrayal, insecurity, and defeat. Today we buy tickets for Hollywood blockbusters including The Day After Tomorrow, War of the Worlds and I Am Legend where humanity is nearly wiped out from natural disasters, alien attacks and disease. If stories are an escape into the imagination, it’s not a happy escape.

One hypothesis is that stories allow us to mentally rehearse moments of adversity without the consequences. Like a flight simulator, fiction generates virtual experiences of adversity for the benefit of practice. Steven Pinker put forth a version of this theory in his 1997 book How the Mind Works: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them… the cliché that life imitates art is true because the function of some kinds of art is for life to imitate it.”

The results from Oliver's study go one step further. "Rather than only providing viewers with models of prosocial behavior, eliciting elevation may further increase the likelihood of engaging in these behaviors, as elevation entails motivational enhancement." In other words, a tragic moment on the big screen or on the page makes us want to be better people. 


Image via Shuttershock/Chepko Danil Vitalevich

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.