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date: 22 May 2017

Media and Emotion

Summary and Keywords

Emotion has been incorporated into media effects research in multiple ways, which can be broadly summarized as considering emotion as a predictor of media selection, an outcome of media exposure, and a mediator of other psychological and behavioral outcomes resulting from media exposure. Specifically, evidence suggests that the desire for particular feeling states influences the media that people choose to consume. Much research also considers the feeling states resulting from exposure, including fright reactions and enjoyment. Finally, there are well-established lines of inquiry into how emotional responses to media influence the processing of those messages in terms of attention, processing depth, and cognitive and behavioral outcomes. More contemporary research is extending these research programs, examining how emotional media messages are socially shared with others as well as the positive emotional effects that may emerge in response to media exposure.

Keywords: mood management, fear appeals, fright, aggression, excitation transfer, desensitization, social sharing, well-being


Following the intellectual trend established within social psychology in which cognitive factors have been emphasized over emotional ones, media effects research has historically focused more on the cognitive and behavioral effects of the media, and less on issues directly related to emotion. However, over the decades, several streams of research have emerged demonstrating the key influence that emotion-based processes have on media message selection and processing in addition to its importance as an outcome of media exposure in and of itself. In addition to these more established lines of research, newer directions of emotion and media research are emerging, such as the role of emotion in the social sharing of media messages as well as the influence of media exposure on positive emotions and well-being.

Emotion as the Impetus for Media Selection

One of the more long-standing and important questions posed by media effects scholars is: Why do audiences select the media messages that they do? Zillmann’s (1988, 2000) mood management theory (MMT) posits affect regulation as a key factor in such decision-making. MMT asserts that people use media to modulate their affective states. More specifically, Zillmann argues that people, driven by hedonistic desires, strive to alter negative moods as well as maintain and prolong positive ones. Consequently, they will, either consciously or subconsciously, arrange their environments to adjust all types of moods using any genre or specific type of communication available. Zillmann goes on to note four message features that might impact mood-based message selection: excitatory potential, absorption potential, semantic affinity, and hedonic valence. For each, the underlying principle is the same. If a message reflects one or more features that might perpetuate the negative state, the message is likely to be avoided in favor of one that would interrupt the negative state.

Much research supports mood management theory’s predictions. However, its boundaries have been challenged by paradoxes of media selection, like the enjoyment of watching horror movies or tearjerkers that are designed to evoke negative affect, seemingly in contradiction to MMT’s assumption of hedonistic motivation. Thus, more recent research has examined alternative motivations linking affect to media selection. For example, Knobloch’s (2003) mood adjustment theory asserts that when anticipating a future activity, people might use media to achieve the mood they believe will be most conducive to completing that task. Thus, the focus is on mood optimization, which she argues is a more specific goal than mood regulation. Most recently, Oliver (2008) argued that media consumers are at times driven not by hedonism, but by eudaimonia, or happiness rooted in greater insight and connection to the human experience. This motivation, she argues, explains viewers’ desires to consume more poignant or tragic fare. There has been a recent surge of research exploring eudaimonic motivations for media consumption, with evidence not only documenting it as a media consumption motivation but also suggesting that consumption of such media content is linked to “meaningful” affective responses, such as feeling inspired, moved, or touched.

Although the extant research on media message selection overwhelmingly emphasizes mood, rather than emotions per se, some research has considered the unique role that discrete emotions might play in this process. For example, Nabi and colleagues (Nabi, Finnerty, Domschke, & Hull, 2006) have looked at the influence of regret on media message preference and found, counter to MMT predictions, that people with lingering regret over a past experience were more, not less, likely to want to see programming on the topic of their regret. Relatedly, Plaisier and Konijn (2013) found adolescents who felt anger in response to perceived peer rejection preferred more antisocial media content. These and other studies suggest that discrete emotions may function differently than moods in that media selection may be driven by coping, rather than by the more basic regulation needs. However, more research is necessary to better understand the role of emotions versus moods in media selection processes.

Emotion as Outcome of Media Exposure

Another dominant focus of media effects and emotion research has been on the emotions that result from message exposure—both specific emotions, like fear, as well as more general affect-laden states, like enjoyment. Media messages clearly have the capacity to evoke a wide range of emotions. Perhaps the most specific line of research in which the emotional response itself is of primary interest involves children’s fright reactions to media fare (Cantor, 2009). Research in this domain documents that children experience fear in response to some of the media content they consume and examines the conditions under which such reactions emerge. Areas of focus include the specific content that frightens children of different ages (e.g., monsters vs. abstract threats), the individual differences that moderate fright reactions (e.g., empathy and gender), and the effectiveness of coping strategies to manage potentially fright-inducing media exposure. Given that frightening media can result in sleep disturbances, recurring thoughts, and persisting anxiety or stress, this research domain is unique in its recognition that simple emotional experiences can be profound not just in their actual experience but in their implications for psychological well-being.

Although not a specific emotion per se, enjoyment resulting from media exposure has also been highlighted in media effects scholarship. Although likely derived from a collection of affective, cognitive, and even behavioral elements, enjoyment has primarily been considered in the media literature as an affectively driven construct that largely represents the degree of liking for media fare (Nabi & Krcmar, 2004). Given the importance of liking to continued exposure to media messages, understanding why people enjoy what they do is an important question. The most systematic line of research in this domain focuses on disposition theory, which, in essence, suggests viewers’ enjoyment of media fare is based on their affective dispositions, or feelings, toward media characters, and the outcomes they experience (Raney, 2006). More specifically, people generally enjoy seeing good things happen to liked characters, and bad things happen to disliked characters. It is typically less enjoyable, however, to watch bad things happen to good guys, and good things happen to bad guys, though the moral ambiguity of some contemporary characters can make their classification as good or bad challenging. Importantly, the role of moral judgments and empathy have traditionally been considered integral to affective disposition processes, as has the role of schemas in setting expectations for various characters.

Some attention has been given to the behavioral outcomes of media enjoyment, such as content selection and behavioral motivations; however, the psychological benefits of media enjoyment itself are of particular interest. That is, to the extent one is in a state of enjoyment, and thus experiencing positive affect akin to happiness, one might receive the psychological benefits associated with that state, such as more creative thinking and an expansive view toward others (Nabi, So, & Prestin, 2011). Further, to the extent one is in a positive state, the resulting feelings of relaxation might have physical benefits by reducing stress and thus mitigating the negative effects that stress can have on the body. However, these links have yet to be established in the extant literature.

Emotion as the Mechanism of Effect

There has been increasing attention to the role of emotion as a key mechanism through which other effects might emerge. There are many ways in which emotion may serve to mediate the relationship between media content exposure and related cognitive and behavioral outcomes. The most well-established research lines in this domain, however, focus on media-driven aggression, emotional persuasive appeals, and message attention and processing.

Emotion and Aggressive Behavior

Meta-analyses across over 300 studies support the claim that exposure to violent media contributes to aggressive behavior (Bushman & Huesmann, 2014). This effect has been documented as a result of exposure to TV, movies, music, and especially video games. Despite ongoing challenges and debate (Elson & Ferguson, 2014), the evidence strongly suggests that media exposure has influence beyond those attributable to biology, culture, and other environmental factors.

Although aggressive behavior is not itself an emotional response, aggression is a behavioral response that often emerges from feelings of anger. Indeed, Anderson and Bushman’s (2002) general aggression model (GAM) asserts that exposure to violence triggers the internal and interrelated states of affect, arousal, and cognition. In the short term, scholars have suggested that the priming of aggressive scripts or angry emotional reactions, along with the emotional arousal stimulated by the depicted violence itself, may ultimately drive more frequent and more intense aggressive behaviors.

Further over the long term, repeated exposure to violence can result in the development of habitual emotional reactions as well as desensitization. The wealth of research motivated by Gerbner’s (1969) cultivation theory supports the claim that greater consumption of television, in light of the extensive violent content displayed, both increases fear about becoming the victim of violence and reduces audiences’ feelings of sympathy for victims of violence. There are numerous moderators of such effects, including how the violence is depicted, age, and other individual differences, but the evidence is consistent with the general claim that exposure to violent media has both short-term and long-term emotional consequences with implications for social behavior.

There are two theories borrowed from psychology that help to explain, at a very general level, the intensity of the emotional reactions people have to the media they consume—violent or otherwise, excitation transfer theory, and desensitization. Excitation transfer theory (Zillmann, 1983) highlights the role of physiology in the emotional experience, arguing that the physiological arousal associated with an emotional experience decays slower than the associated cognitions. Thus, if one is aroused physiologically, one’s emotional response to subsequent events, including media exposure, is likely to be more intense. Therefore, if viewers feel fright watching a film protagonist running from danger, they will feel even more relief than they would have otherwise once the character has reached safety.

Desensitization, on the other hand, focuses on dampening the intensity of emotional experiences. Drawing from the therapeutic technique designed to help people overcome phobias (e.g., fear of spiders), media desensitization suggests that repeated exposure over time to messages that typically evoke strong emotionally based physiological responses (e.g., those that contain violence) lose their capacity to do so. Although a strict interpretation of desensitization focuses on physiological response, research has expanded to consider self-reported arousal along with emotional and cognitive reactions as outcomes. The concern associated with desensitization is that this emotional dampening will transfer to the real world such that people will have weaker emotional reactions to events in the real world that might benefit from action (e.g., offering aid to someone in need) or may minimize the disincentive to engage in antisocial behavior (e.g., aggressive behavior) (Mullin & Linz, 1995). Ultimately, both excitation transfer and desensitization have implications for the intensity of emotional arousal experienced by media consumers, though the specifics associated with these effects are largely unexplored.

Emotion and Persuasion

A second, well-researched area of emotion as a moderator of media effects come from the domain of persuasion, fear appeals in particular, though increasing attention is being paid to the persuasive influence of other emotional states. The fear appeal literature has cycled through several theoretical perspectives over the past 50 years, including the drive model, the parallel processing model, the protection motivation theory, and the extended parallel process model. Meta-analyses have yet to endorse any of these models as accurately capturing the process of fear’s effects on decision-making. However, such analyses have identified four cognitions generated in response to fear appeals—judgments of threat severity, threat susceptibility, and response and self-efficacy—that may be predictive of positive action in response to such messages. Further, evidence supports a positive linear relationship between fear and attitude, behavioral intention, and behavior change. Thus, to the extent message features evoke perceptions of susceptibility and severity, as well as response and self-efficacy, fear may moderate a persuasive outcome, though there are still important questions about the interrelationships among these constructs that remain unanswered (Mongeau, 2013).

Extending beyond fear, there is growing interest in understanding the persuasive effects of a range of emotions within a media context, and emerging models attempt to examine those processes. For example, the cognitive functional model (Nabi, 1999) attempts to explain how message-relevant negative emotions (e.g., fear, anger, sadness, guilt) affect the direction and stability of persuasive outcome based on three constructs—emotion-driven motivated attention, motivated processing, and expectation of message reassurance. In a similar vein, the emotions-as-frames model explains the effects of more general media exposure on attitudinal and behavioral outcomes. Specifically, emotions are conceptualized as frames, or perspectives, through which incoming stimuli are interpreted. First noting the message features likely to evoke various discrete emotions, the model then articulates how those emotional experiences, moderated by individual differences (e.g., schema development, coping style), may influence information accessibility, information seeking, and ultimately emotion-consistent decisions and action. As such, this model offers a better understanding of the potentially central role emotions may play in understanding how message frames in a range of media messages might impact attitudes and behaviors (Nabi, 2007).

In contrast to the growing attention to the persuasive effect of discrete negative emotions, there is still surprisingly little attention to the persuasive effects of positive emotions. Humor has received the most attention in this domain, though meta-analyses suggest inconsistent effects on measures of persuasion. Specifically, humor has been found to increase message attention and produce positive affect, but not meaningfully impact the valence of cognitive responses or source liking and perhaps detract from source credibility. Especially important, humor associates with increased ad liking, brand liking, and purchase intention. However, there is no consistent evidence that humor impacts ad recall or purchase behavior, the ultimate goal of commercial advertisements (Eisand, 2009). Thus, humor has the potential to enhance psychological states associated with persuasion, though the lack of behavioral effects suggests tempered enthusiasm for its persuasive benefit. More recently, the conditions under which humor may facilitate persuasive influence (e.g., via reducing anxiety, examining delayed persuasive effects) are being investigated in both health and political communication contexts, though the findings are too few to draw meaningful conclusions as yet.

Emotion and Message Processing

Related to the above, a well-established program of research considering emotion’s mediating role in media effects looks at how emotional arousal directs the cognitive resources devoted to message processing. Coming from a dimensional perspective on emotion, Lang’s limited capacity model of motivated mediated message processing (LC4MP) essentially suggests that media consumers allocate cognitive resources to the messages they choose to process (Lang, 2009). However, because they only have limited cognitive capacity to do so, their cognitive resources are spread among the processing tasks of attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval. How those resources are allocated is argued to be driven by the message’s characteristics, signal properties, and motivational relevance. Drawing emotion into the equation, Lang argues that motivational activation underlies and enables emotional experiences that, in turn, influence the distribution of cognitive resources. More specifically, aversive (or avoid) system activation leads to negative emotional experience, and appetitive (or approach) system activation leads to positive emotional experiences. As the level of appetitive system activation increases, relatively more resources are thought to be allocated to encoding and storage of message information. As the level of aversive system activation increases, an increase, followed by a slight decrease, in allocation to encoding is expected.

The LC4MP serves as a useful guide toward understanding the message features that stimulate the motivational systems that, in turn, impact the information attention, encoding, storage, and retrieval that underlie media messages’ effects on knowledge structures and decision-making. As such, the LC4MP is a foundational model in the area of emotion and media effects.

Media, Emotion, and Social Sharing

A less developed, but increasingly relevant, way in which emotions relate to media consumption is through the social sharing that occurs as a result of exposure to emotionally charged media content. Although the social sharing of information obtained through the media is at the foundation of one of the earlier models of media effects (two-step flow model of communication), the role of emotion was not of concern at that time. Yet, there is a growing body of literature on the social sharing of emotions that indicates that people have an instinctive need to disclose to others when they experience emotionally charged events, which has been widely documented across cultures, gender, and age groups (Rimé, 1995). Indeed, the more intense the emotional experience or the greater the emotional disruption, the more likely it is to be socially shared and shared repetitively over an extended period of time. There are multiple explanations for this need to share, including the need to verbalize our experiences to help make sense of them, to help validate the self or confirm that we are still ourselves despite this event, and to allow groups to develop collective social knowledge of emotional experiences. The emotional broadcaster theory (EBT) of emotional disclosure (Harber & Cohen, 2005) suggests that this intrapsychic need to share emotional experiences results in both emotion and information traveling across social networks, and research documents that the extent to which stories travel reflects the degree to which the original teller was affected by the experience shared.

Given the emotional nature of much media content, it is reasonable to surmise that media messages may be the source of much social sharing. Yet there is surprisingly little research that speaks directly to this issue. Still, there is growing evidence in multiple media contexts indicating that the emotionality of media messages is associated with their diffusing through social networks, including tragic and shocking news stories, health messages, urban legends, and viral videos (see Nabi et al., 2011). To the extent such sharing influences audience behaviors, from health behavior change to political action, this question is of great social significance. Moreover, in light of technological innovations that allow for the mass sharing of media messages to one’s social network via social media sites, the opportunity for the rapid diffusion of emotionally charged media messages is at a level heretofore unprecedented.

Media and Emotional Well-Being

A second newer area of emotion and media inquiry follows the trend of positive psychology by investigating the role of media use in well-being (Reinecke & Oliver, 2016). Despite previous research on constructs like mood management and enjoyment, only recently have scholars begun to explore how media use, ranging from television to serious games to mobile apps, relates to the construct of psychological well-being and more specifically to its underlying components of recovery (or recuperating from stress) and vitality (or feelings of “aliveness” and energy). Importantly, recovery has been linked to improved well-being, energy, positive affect, and cognitive performance as well as decreased fatigue and burnout. Contemporary research has begun to explore how media use might aid in the recovery process through the replenishment of depleted physical, cognitive, and emotional resources with findings suggesting that consuming hedonic entertainment influences relaxation and psychological detachment. Thus, some evidence supports the benefits of a range of entertainment experiences on key factors underlying psychological well-being in the short run. However, though a promising line of research, this work is in its infancy, and thus, many open questions remain


There are arguably three strong threads of emotion-based media research that trace their roots to early social scientific inquiry (i.e., fright and aggressive responses to media, fear appeals, and entertainment). Early concerns about the damaging effects of violent-mediated content on children in terms of both fright and aggression can be traced back to the early days of mass media. However, it was not until the 1970s that more systematic research into fright reactions emerged and even later before the role of emotions in aggressive responses, anger in particular, was uniquely specified. The research on fright reactions evolved from documenting the frequency and intensity of fright and anxiety resulting from media exposure to the individual differences that moderate such reactions to the methods of coping and managing fright responses (Cantor, 2009). This line of research has plateaued somewhat in recent years, though there is still interest in better understanding how parents might help children successfully navigate their media environments.

Somewhat in contrast, research on the effects of media violence on aggression is still thriving (Bushman & Huesmann, 2014). Not only does it touch on larger societal concerns as relates to successful child-rearing and the likelihood of victimization, but technological developments, such as interactive digital games with increasing graphic realism and opportunities for immersion, continue to fuel intense debate on this topic. The research in this area focuses on documenting the amount of violence within media, its relationship to aggression, mediators of the media content exposure-aggression relationship (including emotional arousal), as well as the psychological process resulting in both short- and long-term effects.

Somewhat concurrent with these lines of research, the study of fear appeals gained traction in the 1950s and theoretical developments emerged over the course of the following decades, attempting to understand the conditions under which fear arousal might promote positive health behaviors. The result of decades of research has revealed that perceptions of severity, susceptibility, response efficacy, and self-efficacy are important factors in fear appeal success, though the relative importance of each is still open to debate (Mongeau, 2013). Investigations into other discrete emotions, including guilt, anger, hope, and amusement, have occurred sporadically over the past several decades, though there is increasing acceptance that different emotions are worth considering when trying to motivate health behavior change.

Finally, and in the area of entertainment media, Zillmann’s introduction of the two-factor (cognition and physiology) perspective on emotion to media research, helped motivate several theoretical developments, including disposition theory and excitation transfer theory (see Bryant, Roskos-Ewoldsen, & Cantor, 2003). Further, his introduction of mood management theory in the 1980s was seminal in considering the role of affect in guiding media exposure selection and thus laying the foundation for resulting effects.

The current landscape of emotion-based media effects inquiry still includes each of these perspectives. In addition, there is a vibrant line of research examining eudaimonic motivations of media consumption as well as the mediating role of discrete emotions in media use and effects. Within the persuasion domain, there is increasing attention to the influence of a range of emotional responses beyond fear, including anger, guilt, hope, and humor. Finally, in light of new media technologies—social media in particular—there are newer lines of research exploring the role of emotion in such contexts, including what information is shared and how consuming that information influences the emotional experiences of those in the social network.

Primary Sources

The scholarly work addressing issues related to emotion and media processes and effects is largely represented across a range of empirical journal articles and thus is not easily compiled. However, there are some nice summaries of the literature in both individual book chapters as well as in edited volumes. Two relevant compilations include Communication and Emotion: Essays in Honor of Dolf Zillmann (Bryant, Roskos-Ewoldsen, & Cantor, 2003) and The Routledge Handbook of Emotions and Mass Media (Döveling, v. Scheve, & Konijn, 2011). The former collection, though suggesting it encompasses communication and emotion issues generally, in fact focuses predominantly on the work produced and inspired by the highly influential media effects scholar Dolf Zillmann, who spearheaded the study of emotion in media contexts. The second and more recent volume covers a broader range of perspectives on the study of emotion and media. Specific book chapters that summarize the state of emotion and media literature include Konijn (2013) and Nabi (2009).


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