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Confronting Sadness Through Art-Making: Distraction Is More Beneficial Than Venting

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Confronting Sadness Through Art-Making: Distraction Is More Beneficial Than Venting

Abstract

We examined two ways in which art-making may function to elevate mood—venting (expressing negative feelings) and distraction (expressing something unrelated to the negative feelings). In Study 1 we induced a negative mood in participants by showing them a sad film clip and then assigned them to one of two conditions. In the venting condition they were asked to draw something related to the film; in the distraction condition they were asked to draw an image unrelated to the film (a house). In Study 2 we induced a negative mood by asking participants to think of the saddest event they had experienced and then assigned them to one of three conditions: venting, distraction, and sitting - a new condition in which participants just sat quietly. This latter condition allowed us to assess the effect of passage of time. In both studies, positive and negative affect were measured before and after the assigned activity. In both studies, mood improved significantly more in the distraction than in the venting or sitting condition. We argue that the mood elevating effects of art-making are stronger when art is used to distract than when used to vent. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Confronting Sadness Through Art-Making:
Distraction Is More Beneficial Than Venting
Jennifer E. Drake
Boston College Ellen Winner
Boston College and Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of
Education
We examined two ways in which art-making may function to elevate mood—venting (expressing
negative feelings) and distraction (expressing something unrelated to the negative feelings). In Study 1
we induced a negative mood in participants by showing them a sad film clip and then assigned them to
one of two conditions. In the venting condition they were asked to draw something related to the film;
in the distraction condition they were asked to draw an image unrelated to the film (a house). In Study
2 we induced a negative mood by asking participants to think of the saddest event they had experienced
and then assigned them to one of three conditions: venting, distraction, and sitting - a new condition in
which participants just sat quietly. This latter condition allowed us to assess the effect of passage of time.
In both studies, positive and negative affect were measured before and after the assigned activity. In both
studies, mood improved significantly more in the distraction than in the venting or sitting condition. We
argue that the mood elevating effects of art-making are stronger when art is used to distract than when
used to vent.
Keywords: short-term mood repair, mood regulation, visual arts
Art-making is a universal activity, present in all human cultures
from the earliest humans on, despite the case that there is no clear
evolutionary, adaptive reason for creating works of art. Art-
making is, among other things, a form of meaning making, a form
of communication, and a form of emotion regulation (Winner,
1982). Many case studies of patients receiving art therapy report
improvement (Briks, 2007; Pifalo, 2006; Tipple, 2008), though
these case studies cannot tell us whether the art therapy was
causally implicated in the improvement. However, experimental
studies providing nonclinical participants with the opportunity to
make art versus some other kind of activity show that art-making
serves as a form of mood repair, at least in the short-term (Dale-
broux, Goldstein, & Winner, 2008; DePetrillo & Winner, 2005;
Drake, Coleman, & Winner, 2011; Pizarro, 2004).
Among the many strategies proposed to regulate mood (Larsen,
2000; Parkinson & Totterdell, 1999; Thayer, Newman, & Mc-
Clain, 1994), two seem particularly related to art-making: venting
(expressing one’s negative feelings) and distraction (expressing
feelings that take one away from negative feelings). By venting we
mean attending to one’s mood (Lischetzke & Eid, 2003). The
underlying principle of art therapy is to use art to discharge
negative feelings through self-expression (Kramer, 2000). And
while artists have described purging themselves of suffering by
expressing their pain in their art through venting, they also speak
of how creating takes them away from their feelings through
distraction (Greene, 1980).
A large body of research by Pennebaker and his colleagues has
demonstrated that expressive writing has many positive outcomes.
Among other things, writing about a stressful event improves
immune function (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988),
raises academic performance (Pennebaker & Francis, 1996), and
lowers the number of visits to a physician (Pennebaker & Beall,
1986; Pennebaker, Colder, & Sharp, 1990).
Expressive writing may allow individuals to integrate emotional
information into their personal experiences (Koole, 2009). Perhaps
expressive writing improves both physical and psychological
health because it allows individuals to form coherent narratives of
their experiences, and the formation of a coherent narrative may
assist individuals in regulating and understanding their emotions
(Klein & Boals, 2001; Pennebaker, Mayne, & Francis, 1997).
Studies have shown that writing about a stressful event has long-
term but not short-term affective benefits. The lack of short-term
benefits was demonstrated by Pizarro (2004), who assigned par-
ticipants to one of three conditions: writing about a stressful event,
drawing about a stressful event, or drawing a still-life. Those in
both drawing conditions reported lower negative affect after the
intervention than did those in the writing condition. Other re-
searchers have demonstrated that writing improves short-term
mood only when the content of the writing is positive, and thus
perhaps serving as a form of distraction from negative thoughts
(Hemenover, Augustine, Shulman, Tran, & Barlett, 2008). Indi-
viduals who wrote about positive autobiographical events reported
greater short-term mood improvement in comparison to those who
wrote about their negative thoughts (Hemenover et al., 2008).
There is now corroborating evidence that supports Pizarro’s
findings that art-making has short-term affective benefits.
DePetrillo and Winner (2005) showed that art-making improves
This article was published Online First January 30, 2012.
Jennifer E. Drake, Department of Psychology, Boston College; Ellen
Winner, Department of Psychology, Boston College, and Project Zero,
Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer
E. Drake, Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
02467. E-mail: drakejc@bc.edu
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts © 2012 American Psychological Association
2012, Vol. 6, No. 3, 255–261 1931-3896/12/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0026909
255
mood more strongly than does copying geometric shapes, perhaps
because copying does not allow any self-expression or creativity.
Support for this possibility comes from a demonstration that art-
making improves short-term mood more than a control activity,
but only for those who use art as a means of distraction rather than
for venting their feelings (Dalebroux et al., 2008). In this study,
mood improved the most in the distraction condition: mood im-
provement in the venting condition was no greater than mood
improvement in a control condition.
These findings are consistent with other research showing that
distraction is an effective way of coping with negative affect
(Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008; Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998).
However, in the Dalebroux et al. study, participants were explicitly
instructed “to draw a picture that depicted happiness.” It remains
possible that mood improved in this condition only because of the
instructions to think of something happy. We do not know whether
distracting oneself away from negative thoughts by thinking of
something neutral would have the same effect.
In what follows we examine art-making as a form of mood
repair, comparing the functions of venting versus distraction.
While previous studies (Dalebroux et al., 2008) have conflated
distraction with positive content (asking participants to draw
something happy), here we investigate the effects of distraction
by asking participants to draw an affectively neutral image. In
addition, whereas previous studies have examined the effects of
art-making on positive mood, here we investigate the effects of
art-making on both positive and negative affect. Finally, with
one exception, previous studies of the effect of art-making on
mood have induced negative moods by showing participants sad
films (Dalebroux et al., 2008). But sadness created by watching
a negative event happen to another person is likely to be far
milder than sadness engendered from a personal experience. In
our second study we examined the effect of art-making on mood
that emerges from a personal experience. To our knowledge,
only one study has examined the effects of art-making on
improving negative mood engendered from recall of past
trauma (Pizarro, 2004). However, the distraction task used by
Pizarro was quite constrained: Participants had to draw a still-
life from observation. In the present study we examined the
effects of a distraction task that allowed participants to generate
their own images—we asked them to draw a house but did not
specify anything more about what the house should look like.
Finally, we investigated whether participants were aware of the
emotion regulation strategy they were using.
In Study 1, we induced a sad mood in participants and then
randomly assigned them to one of two conditions: a vent condition
in which they were to draw something related to the film—an
activity designed to allow them to express their negative feelings;
and a distract condition in which they were to draw a house—an
activity designed to distract them from the negative feelings of the
film. Levels of positive and negative affect were assessed before
and after the activity. In Study 2, we investigated whether art-
making would improve negative affect related to a personal expe-
rience. We also included a control condition (sitting quietly with
no drawing activity) to determine whether mood improved as a
function of time passage. Consistent with previous findings, we
hypothesized that using art to distract rather than to vent would be
more beneficial for mood repair and that using art to distract would
be more beneficial for mood repair than sitting quietly or venting.
Study 1
Method
Participants. Eighty undergraduates at a university in the
northeast of the United States (60 women, 20 men) ranging in age
from 18 to 22 (M!19.2, SD !1.01) were recruited. Participants
were drawn from psychology classes and received one research
credit as part of a course requirement. The sample was 63.8%
White, 11.2% Asian, 11.2% Hispanic/Latino, 7.5% Black, 5.0%
Biracial, and 1.2% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
Materials.
Mood induction. To induce a negative mood, we showed
participants a 6-min clip from the motion picture The Laramie
Project, a documentary about the hate-crime murder of a young
man who was tortured and killed for being openly homosexual. In
the clip, the young man’s father speaks at the sentencing of his
son’s murderer, describing his son’s death, the publicity that
surrounded it, and the family’s opinion of the death penalty. Four
judges rated this film clip on level of sadness using a 7-point scale
ranging from 1 (low)to7(high) as very sad (M!5.25, SD !.96).
This clip has been shown to be effective in inducing a negative
mood (Goldstein, 2009).
Activity. All participants were given a set of colored pencils
and a 9 “"11” sheet of white paper and were randomly assigned
to one of two conditions, venting or distraction, with 40 partici-
pants in each condition and no difference in gender distribution
between conditions (#
2
!0.0, p!1.0). The venting condition was
designed so that participants could express their negative feelings
in their drawings. They were instructed as follows: “Use the next
10 minutes to draw something about the film.” The distraction
condition was designed to distract participants from the negative
feelings that the film elicited in them by drawing a neutral object
unrelated to the film. They were instructed as follows: “Use the
next 10 minutes to draw a house.” These conditions allowed us to
tease apart the mood effects of using drawing as a form of venting
versus as a form of distraction.
Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). To mea-
sure affect, we administered the Positive and Negative Affect
Schedule (PANAS) (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988). The
PANAS contains 20 words (10 positive and 10 negative) for
feelings and emotions (e.g., interested, excited, distressed, upset).
Participants were asked to indicate, for each word, the extent to
which they were feeling that emotion on a five-point scale ranging
from 1 (very slightly or not at all)to5(extremely). The PANAS
yields a global score for positive affect and negative affect.
Procedure. Participants were seen individually in a private
room. Participants first completed the PANAS (Time 1). Next,
participants watched the mood induction film clip and completed
the PANAS a second time (Time 2). Participants then carried out
the activity in their assigned condition. After drawing, participants
were given the PANAS a final time and asked to indicate how they
were feeling (Time 3).
Results
Preliminary results. Table 1 presents the mean positive and
negative affect scores for Time 1, Time 2, and Time 3 by condi-
tion. Participants in the two conditions had equivalent positive and
256 DRAKE AND WINNER
negative affect scores prior to the mood induction. A one-way
ANOVA by condition (2) at Time 1 revealed no effect of condition
on positive affect, F(1, 78) !.060, p!.808 or on negative affect,
F(1, 78) !.378, p!.540. A one-way ANOVA by condition
showed no differences between conditions at Time 2 for either
positive affect, F(1, 78) !.005, p!.943 or negative affect, F(1,
78) !.567, p!.454. Thus, there were no differences between the
two conditions in affect at the start of the study, or after the mood
induction.
Effects of condition on decreasing negative affect. To com-
pare the effectiveness of venting versus distraction in decreas-
ing negative affect, we performed a three-way repeated mea-
sures ANOVA, with condition as the between-subjects factor,
and time as the repeated measures factor for negative affect.
There was an effect of time, F(2, 156) !33.650, MSE !11.55,
p$.001. Paired sample ttests showed negative affect increas-
ing from Time 1 (M!12.9) to Time 2 (M!16.3), t(79) !
%5.783, p$.001, and negative affect decreasing from Time 2
(M!16.25) to Time 3 (M!12.10), t(79) !7.241, p$.001.
There was no effect of condition, F(1, 78) !3.042, p!.465.
Condition interacted with time, F(2, 156) !3.042, p!.05. A
one-way ANOVA by condition (2) on Time 3 negative affect
scores revealed that negative affect was lower in the distraction
condition than in the venting condition, F(1, 78) !6.510, p!
.013, d!%.57.
When the same analysis was conducted including gender as a
factor, results were unchanged: there was no main effect of gender,
nor were there any interactions with gender.
Effects of condition on increasing positive affect. To com-
pare the effectiveness of venting versus distraction in increasing
positive affect, we performed a three-way repeated measures
ANOVA, with condition as the between-subjects factor, and
time as the repeated measures factor for positive affect. There
was an effect of time, F(2, 156) !4.194, MSE !20.874, p!
.017. Paired sample ttests showed positive affect decreasing
from Time 1 (M!25.7) to Time 2 (M!23.7), t(79) !3.285,
p!.001, and positive affect increasing from Time 2 (M!
23.6) to Time 3 (M!25.0), t(79) !%1.831, p!.071. There
was no effect of condition, F(1, 78) !.003, p!.958, nor did
condition interact with time, F(2, 156) !.043, p!.958.
When the same analysis was conducted including gender as a
factor, there was no main effect of gender, nor was there any
two-way interaction. There was a significant three-way interaction
(Mood "Condition "Gender), F(2, 152) !4.236, MSE !
11.130, p!.016. A one-way ANOVA was performed by gender
on negative affect for those in the venting condition. There were no
gender differences as a function of Time 1 (p!.447) or Time 2
(p!.413) but male participants reported higher negative affect at
Time 3 than female participants reported (p!.049). We also
performed a one-way ANOVA by gender on the negative affect
scores in the distraction condition. There were no gender differ-
ences for Time 1 (p!.341), Time 2 (p!.150), or Time 3 (p!
.537).
Discussion
This study compared the effectiveness of using art-making to
vent negative feelings versus to distract oneself from negative
feelings. Negative affect was reduced significantly more after
distraction than venting. There was no analogous effect for posi-
tive affect. This finding is consistent with previous research show-
ing that using art-making to vent is less effective in improving
mood than is using art-making to distract (Dalebroux et al., 2008;
Drake et al., 2011). But the results presented here are stronger:
although Dalebroux et al. found the positive effect of distraction
when participants were explicitly asked to make a positive image,
here we report the effect even when participants are asked to create
a neutral image.
Study 2
Study 2 was motivated by three questions. First, we reasoned
that distraction might have been more effective than venting in
Study 1 only because the negative mood participants felt was not
about events that were personally experienced. Perhaps venting is
more effective when confronting the more intense negative feel-
ings that might be triggered by recalling a personal sadness. Thus,
in Study 2 we induced a negative mood by asking participants to
think of the saddest event they had ever experienced. Second,
Study 1 did not allow us to disentangle the mood improvement that
could result from mere time passage from the improvement that
could result from drawing. Thus, in Study 2 we included a condi-
tion in which participants were asked to sit quietly for 10 minutes.
And third, Study 1 did not include a manipulation check to
determine whether participants were actually venting in the vent-
ing condition and distracting themselves in the distraction condi-
tion. Thus, in Study 2 we asked participants whether they believed
that the activity in which they had just engaged served to help them
vent their feelings, think about things besides the sad event, or
something else.
Study 2 was similar in design to Study 1. We induced a sad
mood by asking participants to think of the saddest event they had
Table 1
Mean Positive and Negative Affect (and Standard Deviations) for Each Condition at Time 1,
Time 2, and Time 3
Condition nTime 1 Time 2 Time 3
Vent 40
Positive Affect 25.85 (4.80) 23.60 (6.29) 25.02 (7.00)
Negative Affect 13.15 (3.55) 15.82 (4.06) 13.00 (4.11)
Distract 40
Positive Affect 25.55 (6.11) 23.70 (6.27) 25.05 (6.39)
Negative Affect 12.62 (4.07) 16.68 (5.87) 11.20 (1.74)
257
MOOD REPAIR THROUGH DRAWING
experienced. Participants were then randomly assigned to one of
three conditions: vent, distract, or sit. Mood was assessed before
and after thinking of the sad event and after the activity.
Method
Participants.
Participants were 90 undergraduates at the same university as in
Study 1 (63 women, 27 men) ranging in age from 18 to 22 (M!
18.9, SD !.95). Participants were recruited from psychology
classes and received one research credit as part of a course re-
quirement. The sample was 65.6% White, 13.3% Asian, 13.3%
Hispanic/Latino, 3.3% Black, 3.3% Other, and 1.1% Native Ha-
waiian/Pacific Islander.
Materials.
Mood induction. Participants were instructed as follows:
“Think of the saddest event that has ever happened to you. I want
you to close your eyes and make yourself feel like you did then.”
Participants were given a full minute to think about this event.
They were then asked to write down a short description of the
event they had recalled.
Activity. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three
conditions: vent, distract, or sit, with 30 in each condition and no
difference in gender distribution across conditions, (#
2
!0.0 p!
1.0). Participants in the vent and distract conditions were given a
set of colored pencils and a 9” "11” sheet of white paper. Vent
condition instructions were: “Use the next 10 minutes to draw the
event.” Distract condition instructions were: “Use the next 10
minutes to draw a house.” In the sit condition, participants were
instructed to “Use the next 10 minutes to sit quietly.”
Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). To mea-
sure affect, we again administered the Positive and Negative
Affect Schedule (PANAS) (Watson et al., 1988).
Strategy questionnaire. To determine whether participants
were aware of the strategy they used, at the end of the session we
asked participants to indicate on a questionnaire: “Which of the
following functions did the task serve for you?” They were pre-
sented with three choices and asked to select one: 1) “It helped me
vent my feelings;” 2) “It helped me to think about things other than
the sad event;” and 3) “Other—specify.” Nineteen (19.8%) partic-
ipants checked “Other” and thus were excluded from the strategy
analyses. We used the remaining responses (n!71) to classify
individuals as believing that while drawing or sitting they were
expressing negative feelings about the event or allowing them-
selves to be distracted.
Procedure. Participants were seen individually in a private
room. Participants first completed the PANAS (Time 1). Next,
participants were asked to think of the saddest event that happened
to them and again completed the PANAS (Time 2). Participants
then carried out the activity in their assigned condition. After the
activity, participants were given the PANAS again and asked to
indicate how they were feeling (Time 3). Finally, participants
completed the Strategy Questionnaire.
Results
Preliminary results. Table 2 presents the mean positive and
negative affect scores for Time 1, Time 2, and Time 3 by condi-
tion. Participants in the three conditions had equivalent positive
and negative affect scores prior to the mood induction. A one-way
ANOVA by condition (3) revealed at Time 1 no effect of condition
on positive affect, F(2, 87) !.261, p!.771 or on negative affect,
F(2, 87) !.254, p!.777. A one-way ANOVA by condition also
showed no differences across conditions at Time 2 either for
positive affect, F(2, 87) !1.190, p!.154 or negative affect, F(2,
87) !.086, p!.918. Thus, there were no differences across
conditions in affect at the start of the study or after the mood
induction.
Effects of condition on decreasing negative affect. To com-
pare the effectiveness of the conditions in improving short-term
mood, we performed a three-way repeated measures ANOVA,
with condition as the between-subjects factor, and time as the
repeated measures factor for negative affect. There was an effect of
time, F(2, 174) !53.936, MSE !18.420, p$.001. Paired sample
ttests showed negative affect increasing from Time 1 (M!12.9)
to Time 2 (M!19.4), t(89) !%8.963, p$.001; and decreasing
from Time 2 (M!19.4) to Time 3 (M!14.7), t(89) !5.879, p$
.001. There was no effect of condition, F(2, 87) !2.532, p!.085.
As in Study 1, condition interacted with time, F(4, 174) !
8.385, p$.001. A one-way ANOVA by condition (3) on negative
affect scores revealed an effect of condition, F(2, 87) !22.396,
p$.001. Least Significant Difference post hoc tests showed that
negative affect decreased significantly more in the distract than in
the vent condition (p$.001, d!%.61), significantly more in the
sit than in the vent condition (p$.001, d!%.32), and marginally
more in the distract than in the sit condition (p!.061, d!%.45).
Table 2
Mean Positive and Negative Affect (and Standard Deviations) for Each Condition at Time 1,
Time 2, and Time 3
Condition nTime 1 Time 2 Time 3
Vent 30
Positive Affect 27.44 (7.01) 20.63 (7.11) 20.06 (8.19)
Negative Affect 13.38 (3.75) 19.06 (6.23) 18.72 (6.39)
Distract 30
Positive Affect 25.53 (6.17) 17.38 (5.43) 25.90 (7.39)
Negative Affect 12.53 (2.99) 19.91 (8.34) 11.38 (2.03)
Sit 30
Positive Affect 26.35 (7.39) 20.84 (7.74) 20.00 (8.63)
Negative Affect 12.78 (2.81) 18.84 (8.60) 13.41 (3.71)
258 DRAKE AND WINNER
When the same analysis was conducted including gender as a
factor, results were unchanged: There was no main effect of
gender, nor were there any interactions with gender.
Effects of condition on increasing positive affect. To com-
pare the effectiveness of venting versus distraction in improving
short-term mood, we performed a three-way repeated measures
ANOVA, with condition as the between-subjects factor, and time
as the repeated measures factor for positive affect. There was an
effect of time, F(2, 174) !65.018, MSE !17.135, p$.001.
Paired sample ttests showed positive affect decreasing from Time
1(M!26.5) to Time 2 (M!19.6), t(89) !14.561, p$.001; and
positive affect increasing from Time 2 (M!19.6) to Time 3 (M!
22.1), t(79) !%3.161, p!.002. There was no effect of condition,
F(2, 87) !.179, p!.836.
Condition interacted with time, F(4, 174) !14.587, p$.001.
A one-way ANOVA by condition (3) on positive affect scores
revealed an effect of condition, F(2, 87) !6.519, p!.002. Least
Significant Difference post hoc tests showed that positive affect
increased significantly more in the distract than in the vent con-
dition (p!.003, d!.82), and significantly more in the distract
than in the sit condition (p!.002, d!.84). The sit and vent
conditions did not differ in their effect on positive affect (p!.936,
d!%.02). When the same analysis was conducted including
gender, there was a main effect of gender: Male participants had a
marginally higher positive affect at Time 1 (p!.059), a signifi-
cantly higher positive affect at Time 2 (p!.003), and marginally
higher positive affect at Time 3 (p!.074) than did female
participants. There were no interactions with gender.
Self-report strategy. As a manipulation check, we investi-
gated participants’ beliefs about the strategy they were using. A
chi-square test on assigned condition by reported strategy (vent,
distract) was performed, with those who selected “Other” excluded
from the analysis (n!19). There was a difference in the propor-
tion of reported strategies by condition, #
2
!43.533, p$.001. In
the vent condition, 83% said they thought the activity helped them
to vent their feelings. In the distract and sit conditions, 93% and
92%, respectively, said they thought the activity helped them to
think about things other than the sad event. Thus, those in the vent
condition believed they were venting; and those in both the distract
and the sit conditions believed they were distracting themselves.
Discussion
This study examined the effectiveness of two kinds of mood
regulation strategies when coping with a negative mood engen-
dered by thinking about a personal event (venting vs. distraction).
Consistent with previous research (Dalebroux et al., 2008; Drake
et al., 2011), positive affect was significantly higher in the dis-
traction condition than in the venting condition. Positive affect was
also higher in the distraction condition than in the sitting condition,
showing that we cannot explain the positive effects of distracting
oneself through drawing by using the mere passage of time.
Negative affect was reduced the least in the vent condition, again
showing venting to be less effective than distracting oneself.
Although the sit condition reduced negative affect marginally less
than did the distract condition, it was in the distract condition that
negative affect was reduced along with an elevation of positive
affect. Thus, drawing something distracting, a house, was more
effective in repairing mood than both venting negative feelings and
simply allowing time to pass for the mood to fade.
General Discussion
The physical and psychological benefits of positive emotions
are numerous. Positive moods are associated with a lessening of
pain, improved immune functioning, and better recovery from
cardiovascular illness (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008). Positive emo-
tions also allow us to cope with stressors. People who experience
more positive emotions are able to cope with natural disasters
more efficiently compared to those who experience fewer positive
emotions (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008). People who have more
positive emotions also report greater psychological well-being
after the death of someone close (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008).
In Study 1, we induced a negative mood by showing a sad film,
and then assessed mood after participants used drawing to vent
negative feelings or to distract themselves from thinking about
negative feelings. In Study 2 we induced a negative mood by
asking people to think about something sad that they personally
experienced, and we tested whether mood improvement from
art-making could be attributed to the passage of time after thinking
about a sad event.
Consistent with previous research (Dalebroux et al., 2008;
Drake et al., 2011), we found that distraction through art-making
is a more effective means of short-term mood repair than is
venting. We also found that male participants in Study 1 reported
more negative affect after using art to vent than to distract them-
selves. The benefits of distraction through drawing occur when
sadness is due to viewing a sad film as well as to recalling a
personally sad experience. Previous research had demonstrated
that creating a positively valenced drawing renders mood more
positive (Dalebroux et al., 2008). The present research shows that
this effect is not a function of making a drawing that is positively
valenced given that the same findings were obtained when people
drew a neutral image (a house). We also found in Study 2 that
participants were aware of the strategy they were using. Of course
this is a global assessment of emotion regulation strategy. Future
research would benefit from investigating more specifically indi-
viduals’ awareness of emotion regulation strategies and their re-
lation to drawing activities.
We asked participants to draw a house—a topic selected be-
cause of its presumably neutral nature. It is possible that drawing
a house conjured up personal positive or negative memories. To
determine what participants are thinking about when distracting
themselves by drawing a house, future research should ask partic-
ipants directly to recall what they were thinking of while drawing
the house. It is also possible that because participants were asked
draw a set item (the house), they felt as if their drawing was being
evaluated. The expectation of being evaluated may have focused
participants’ attention on the drawing task and away from their
negative mood. Future research should examine whether an ex-
pectation that one’s drawing will be evaluated affects whether the
drawing experience leads to mood improvement.
Of course, drawing is just one of the ways in which people can
distract themselves to improve mood. Working on a complex math
problem improves mood more than does working on a simple math
problem (which presumably is less distracting because it requires
less concentration), and also more than does working on no math
259
MOOD REPAIR THROUGH DRAWING
problem at all (van Dillen & Koole, 2007). The same effect occurs
when people view cognitively demanding yet humorous stimuli
(Strick, Holland, van Baaren, & van Knippenberg, 2009): Mood
improved more after viewing stimuli that were high in cognitive
demand. These studies demonstrate that distraction from a nega-
tive mood can occur when individuals engage in cognitively de-
manding tasks. As van Dillen and Koole (2007) have argued, such
tasks distract us by loading our working memory and “preventing
mood-congruent processing” (p. 715). We suggest that when par-
ticipants drew the house, they were forced to create images that
were incongruent with their negative memories. This incongruence
may have made the house-drawing distraction task more cogni-
tively demanding than the venting task—and this may be the
mechanism by which mood was elevated after drawing a house.
Future research should administer an independent measure of
cognitive demand to determine whether level of cognitive load
predicts mood improvement.
We have demonstrated here that the effect of art-making on
mood cannot be attributed to the mere passage of time, given that
affect was higher in the distraction condition than in the sitting
condition. To be sure, we found that negative affect was reduced
more in the distraction and sitting conditions than in the venting
condition. However, although the sitting condition reduced nega-
tive affect marginally less than did the distraction condition, it was
only in the distraction condition that there simultaneously was a
reduction of negative affect with an elevation of positive affect.
Taken together, this research begins to inform our understanding
of how the near-universal activity of drawing may serve to regulate
an individual’s emotions—particularly sadness. Drawing to dis-
tract is a short-term emotion regulation strategy that can be used at
any time and in any place. Whereas the present research examines
immediate effects of drawing on mood, the next step would be to
examine the long-term effects of drawing on mood. Similar to
expressive writing, drawing may improve mood in the long term
because it allows individuals to form coherent narratives of their
experiences. One of the functions of art therapy is to make mean-
ing of a personal experience through drawing and talking about the
personal experience (American Art Therapy Association, 2011). In
nonclinical populations, the process of using a drawing to build a
meaningful narrative may take longer than a brief intervention.
Thus, future research should examine the long-term mood benefits
of drawing, comparing drawing as a form of venting versus dis-
traction. Future research might also examine the effect of drawing
on other kinds of negative and positive emotions (disgust, pride,
etc.).
We conclude that art-making helps to repair negative affect,
whether this affect was caused by observing bad things happening
to others, or by recalling personal sorrows. Although using art to
vent negative feelings and to distract oneself from negative feel-
ings are both effective means of mood repair, the studies reported
here, along with previous studies, show that using art to distract
oneself is a significantly more effective form of mood regulation
than is using art as a form of venting. This finding runs counter to
the commonly held view that self-expression through art (another
way of describing venting) serves a therapeutic function. We
suggest that what is therapeutic about the activity of art-making is
that it redirects our thoughts, and keeps us from ruminating.
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Received July 14, 2011
Revision received November 1, 2011
Accepted November 30, 2011 !
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... There is some previous empirical research that studies the effect of either drawing or clay forming on mood and emotion regulation by utilising different self-rating questionnaires (DePetrillo & Winner, 2005;Drake & Winner, 2012;Drake, Coleman, & Winner, 2011;Kimport & Hartzell, 2015;Kimport & Robbins, 2012). Most of the studies have tested the effect of varying drawing or clay forming tasks on participants' mood and emotional regulation after first inducting a negative mood. ...
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