Individual Differences in Need for Affect and Reactivity

Ryan Thibodeau, St. John Fisher College
Kelsey Krueger, St. John Fisher College


People are different with respect to their emotional propensities, including emotional abilities/skills and emotional style. Regarding emotional abilities/skills, alexithymia (i.e., difficulties identifying and describing emotions; Bagby et al., 1994) and emotional intelligence (Mayer et al., 1999) have been among the more widely studied constructs. Regarding emotional style, research has examined the intensity of emotion (Larsen et al., 1986) and individual differences in general positive/negative affectivity (Watson et al., 1988) or specific emotions (e.g., anxiety; Spielberger, 1985). Notably, very little work has examined people’s motivation to pursue experiences that should give rise to strong emotion.

To fill this gap, Maio and Esses (2001) constructed the Need for Affect (NFA) scale, which captures individual differences in the tendency to embrace emotion. Maio and Esses (2001) demonstrated that NFA is empirically related to, but distinct from, other emotion-related individual differences. Their results also showed that individual differences in NFA predict important emotion-related outcomes.

These advances notwithstanding, additional work is needed to more fully illuminate the causes, correlates, and implications of NFA. For example, is a greater need for affect accompanied by stronger reactivity to emotional challenge? The purpose of the present research was to interrogate this question using a variety of emotional reactivity measures.

56 undergraduates participated in the study.

After completing the NFA scale, participants viewed a series of 64 emotion-laden pictures obtained from the International Affective Picture System (Lang et al., 2005). Pictures were grouped into three categories: pleasant (e.g., babies), neutral (e.g., household objects), and unpleasant (e.g., attack). Pictures were shown for 6 s, followed by an intertrial interval that varied between 7 and 10 s.

During picture viewing, the size of participants’ eyeblinks in response to startling noises was evaluated using electromyographic recording. Eyeblink startle is a widely used psychophysiological technique for evaluating responses to emotion-laden stimuli (see Blumenthal et al., 2005).

After the first round of picture viewing, during which eyeblink startle data were collected, participants viewed the same pictures a second time. Three additional measures were administered during this phase: (1) the amount of time spent viewing each picture during a free viewing period, (2) self-reported pleasantness, and (3) self-reported arousal.

For eyeblink startle, free viewing time, and self-reported arousal, NFA did not interact with Picture Type, Fs < 1.31, ps > .27. Thus, patterns of reactivity to the three categories of pictures were similar regardless of NFA scores. For self-reported valence, there was a significant NFA by Picture Type interaction (F[2,102] = 9.98, p < .001). High NFA participants reported greater pleasantness while viewing pleasant pictures (t = -3.35, p < .01), and greater unpleasantness while viewing unpleasant pictures (t = 2.33, p < .03), compared to low NFA participants. The self-reported valence results, together with the nonsignificant findings for eyeblink startle, are especially revealing. Although NFA appears to predict self-reports of the pleasantness of emotion-laden stimuli, it does not appear to predict emotional reactivity at the level of the underlying physiological systems responsible for marshaling responses to pleasant and unpleasant stimuli.