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Glad to be sad, and other examples of benign masochism

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We provide systematic evidence for the range and importance of hedonic reversals as a major source of pleasure, and incorporate these findings into the theory of benign masochism. Twenty-nine different initially aversive activities are shown to produce pleasure (hedonic reversals) in substantial numbers of individuals from both college student and Mechanical Turk samples. Hedonic reversals group, by factor analysis, into sadness, oral irritation, fear, physical activity/exhaustion, pain, strong alcohol-related tastes, bitter tastes, and disgust. Liking for sad experiences (music, novels, movies, paintings) forms a coherent entity, and is related to enjoyment of crying in response to sad movies. For fear and oral irritation, individuals also enjoy the body's defensive reactions. Enjoyment of sadness is higher in females across domains. We explain these findings in terms of benign masochism, enjoyment of negative bodily reactions and feelings in the context of feeling safe, or pleasure at "mind over body". In accordance with benign masochism, for many people, the favored level of initially negative experiences is just below the level that cannot be tolerated.
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Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013, pp. 439–447
Glad to be sad, and other examples of benign masochism
Paul RozinLily GuillotKatrina FincherAlexander Rozin§Eli Tsukayama
Abstract
We provide systematic evidence for the range and importance of hedonic reversals as a major source of pleasure,
and incorporate these findings into the theory of benign masochism. Twenty-nine different initially aversive activities
are shown to produce pleasure (hedonic reversals) in substantial numbers of individuals from both college student and
Mechanical Turk samples. Hedonic reversals group, by factor analysis, into sadness, oral irritation, fear, physical activ-
ity/exhaustion, pain, strong alcohol-related tastes, bitter tastes, and disgust. Liking for sad experiences (music, novels,
movies, paintings) forms a coherent entity, and is related to enjoyment of crying in response to sad movies. For fear and
oral irritation, individuals also enjoy the body’s defensive reactions. Enjoyment of sadness is higher in females across
domains. We explain these findings in terms of benign masochism, enjoyment of negative bodily reactions and feelings
in the context of feeling safe, or pleasure at “mind over body”. In accordance with benign masochism, for many people,
the favored level of initially negative experiences is just below the level that cannot be tolerated.
Keywords: emotion, preferences, hedonic reversal.
1 Introduction
Well over 2 billion human adults enjoy the innately neg-
ative “burn” of chili pepper in their mouths. This ex-
emplifies a type of hedonic reversal, the conversion of
a (usually) innate negative experience into a positive ex-
perience. We described these hedonic reversals as exam-
ples of benign masochism (Rozin & Schiller, 1980; Rozin
1990, 1999; see also Bloom, 2010). Benign masochism
refers to enjoying initially negative experiences that the
body (brain) falsely interprets as threatening. This real-
ization that the body has been fooled, and that there is no
real danger, leads to pleasure derived from “mind over
body. This can also be framed as a type of mastery.
Hedonic reversals have been demonstrated in a number
of domains besides irritant spices, including fear (e.g.,
Apter, 1982, 1992; McCauley, 1998; Andrade & Cohen,
2007) and sadness (de Wied, Zillman & Ordman, 1994;
Huron, 2011; Oliver, 1993; Schramm & Wirth, 2010).
The oral-irritation, sadness and fear literatures have pro-
ceeded quite independently, with all suggesting two basic
processes. One is the co-activation of negative and pos-
itive inputs (e.g., Hemenover & Schimmack, 2007; An-
Thanks to Michael Kubovy and Maya Bar-Hillel for helpful com-
ments on the manuscript.
Copyright: © 2013. The authors license this article under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 3720 Wal-
nut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6241. Email: rozin@psych.upenn.edu.
Yale University.
University of Pennsylvania.
§West Chester University.
drade & Cohen, 2007). The existence of simultaneous
negative and positive affect in hedonic reversals has been
documented for fear (Andrade & Cohen, 2007) and sad-
ness (de Wied et al., 1994). The second process produces
enjoyment of the co-activation “conflict” based on some
degree of “distance” from the apparent threat. We pro-
pose benign masochism as this second process. Using
a similar set of arguments, McGraw and his colleagues
(McGraw & Warren, 2010; McGraw, Warren, Williams
& Leonard, 2012) have independently developed a the-
ory of humor (benign violation) which also builds on
mixed emotions and the importance of distance. In their
view, humor is principally based on something like “safe
threats”.
Individuals differ in the tendency to experience hedo-
nic reversals. There is a relation between the degree of
empathic distress at a sad film and the enjoyment of the
film, for those who enjoy sad films (de Wied et al., 1994;
Oliver, 1993; Schramm & Wirth, 2010), and the same
seems to hold true for sad music (Huron, 2011). Indi-
viduals who are more successful in taking a third party
(observer role) in experiencing sad films are more likely
to enjoy them than those who adopt a direct experienc-
ing role (Schramm & Wirth, 2010). Mayer & Gaschke’s
(1988) ideas about meta-emotions mesh well with the dis-
tancing formulation. The importance of “distancing” (or
the “protective frame” proposed by Apter [1982, 1992])
in hedonic reversals is well summarized by Huron (2011):
“In short, while empathy may be essential in order for
acoustic cues to evoke sadness in a listener, cognitive as-
sessment of the artificial nature of the stimulus may be
essential in order for the sadness to be discounted as in-
439
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
440
consequential. Individual differences in response to nom-
inally sad music might therefore arise due to both vari-
ability in empathy and also variability in capacity to cog-
nitively discount the stimulus as fictional.” (p. 9)
Benign masochism essentially provides a mechanism
for why the “meta-experience” involved in distancing is
pleasant. This requires some sort of “cognitive over-
ride”, and should be distinctively human. There is no
strong evidence for liking for innately negative experi-
ences in animals. The strongest evidence against animal
exemplars is that rural Mexican dogs and pigs that eat
food with hot peppers regularly (since they eat human
leftovers) do not develop a preference, unlike some hun-
dred million human Mexicans who share their diet (Rozin
& Kennel, 1983). On the other hand, Rozin and Kennel
(1983) report a few cases of acquired liking for irritant
tastes in American pet animals.
The present paper is the first to describe a wide range
of activities that illustrate hedonic reversals and to pro-
vide a taxonomy of these activities. The authors nomi-
nated candidate hedonic reversals based on their own ex-
perience and experiences observing others or reading, in-
cluding a few studies that documented such activities, es-
pecially for oral irritation, fear, and music. Our focus
was Americans, and we were not, and perhaps could not
be, exhaustive. For example, we did not include truly
dangerous activities like rock cliff climbing, or activities
that we thought would be rare and/or might render the
questionnaire problematic for some subjects (e.g., sado-
masochistic activities). Our list, while incomplete, is by
far the most exhaustive to date. We link hedonic rever-
sals to enjoyment of “negative” physical body reactions
to these same events, and provide some evidence for a
benign masochism interpretation. We also explore the de-
gree to which hedonic reversals in different domains are
related to one another, as an individual difference vari-
able, and whether such an individual difference is related
to sensation seeking (Zuckerman, 1979). We are partic-
ularly interested in enjoyment of sadness, because a) it
occurs with high frequency, and b) it is involved with
the appreciation of fiction and music. The popularity of
tragedy remains a puzzling aspect of the human experi-
ence (Nuttall, 1996).
2 Method
Two groups of subjects responded to our Survey Mon-
key questionnaire. One was 243 University of Pennsyl-
vania undergraduates (135 females), who received course
credit. A separate sample from Mechanical Turk con-
sisted of 48 males (mean age 34.8 years) and 99 females
(mean age 36.3 years).
The same 30 items appeared on both questionnaires,
in an order randomized for each subject. The instructions
were as follows: “Use a scale ranging from 0=not at all to
100=as much as I like anything. You can use any number
between 0 and 100. How much do you like the follow-
ing? (If you are unfamiliar with any of the following,
please enter 999 as your answer.)” Thirty items followed.
One item, tobacco products, was excluded in data analy-
sis because a large number of subjects were not familiar
with them. The items are presented in abbreviated form in
Tables 1 and 3, in an order determined by factor analysis
(see description under results). The precise description of
each item is provided along with the presentation of each
factor in the text below.
The questionnaire also included, for student subjects,
the Sensation Seeking Scale (version V; Zuckerman,
1979), and for about half of the MTurk sample, seven
items (described in results) to directly assess a major pre-
diction of benign masochism.
3 Results
We analyzed the results from 29 hedonically rated items
(tobacco products excluded). Unfamiliarity, which was
uncommon, was scored as 0.
3.1 Confirmatory factor analyses
We conducted confirmatory factor analyses on 26 of the
29 variables for which we had a priori predictions of
factor-loadings (Bryant & Yarnold, 1995; Kline, 2005).
Three items were excluded because they either were pre-
dicted to load on more than one factor (“Gory movies”
might load on fear and disgust factors; “stinky cheese”
might load on strong tastes and disgust) or no other fac-
tor (“anger directed at a fictional character in a novel or
movie”). In other words, items were excluded a priori if
we predicted that they would load on two of the factors
(conceptual categories) that we came up with indepen-
dent of the results, or if we felt that they did not directly
relate to any of the conceptual categories. Items were
allowed to load freely on their predicted factor (see Ta-
ble 1), the factor loadings with other factors were set to
zero, and the covariances among the factors were freely
estimated. We used full information maximum likelihood
(FIML) to include subjects with missing data (about 17%
of the subjects were missing data on at least one variable).
FIML is less biased and more efficient than traditional
missing data techniques (Enders & Bandalos, 2001; Pe-
ters & Enders, 2002).
A multiple-group confirmatory factor model revealed
that allowing the factor loadings to differ by group (stu-
dent or MTurk) did not improve model fit, χ²(26) = 23.99,
p= .58. Because the factor loadings did not differ sig-
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
441
Table 1: Factor loadings, subscale corrected item-total
correlations, and subscale alphas for confirmatory eight-
factor model. All factor loadings are significant at p<
.001.
FACTOR or Item Loading Item-total ror
subscale α
SAD .88
Sad movies .85 .78
Sad novels .84 .76
Crying to sad movies .75 .68
Sad music .71 .69
Sad painting .67 .64
BURN .88
Burn mouth .86 .77
Spicy Food .81 .74
Eyes tearing .77 .71
Tacos with hot sauce .74 .69
Sweating .69 .63
DISGUST .71
Disgusting jokes .66 .47
Disgusting experiences .63 .47
Pinching pimples .61 .48
Picking nose .57 .48
FEAR .72
Pounding heart .88 .64
Frightening movies .76 .61
Thrill rides .47 .41
PAIN .59
Massage pain .64 .44
Flashes cold pain .53 .35
Flashes hot pain .53 .43
ALCOHOL .75
Beer .79 .60
Scotch .76 .60
EXHAUST .73
Physically exhausted .81 .57
Physically active .71 .57
BITTER .52
Bitter foods .69 .37
Unsweetened coffee .52 .37
nificantly by group, we combined the two samples and
report a single model. The model fit the data well (see
Kline, 2005 for a discussion of SEM [structural equation
modeling] fit statistics), χ²(271)=528.07, p<.001; Com-
parative Fit Index (CFI) = .93; Root Mean Square Error of
Approximation (RMSEA) = .05 (90% CI=.04-.06). See
Table 1 for factor loadings, corrected item-total correla-
tions, and subscale alphas. Subscale summary statistics
are in Table 2.
Subscales are designated by a short descriptive term.
The first subscale (SAD) includes enjoyment of: “sad
paintings, sad music, sad movies, sad novels, crying in
response to sad movies or novels”. Enjoying sad things
is to some degree domain general, along with enjoying
the body’s response (crying) to sad inputs. The second
subscale (BURN), also has five exemplars (“spicy foods,
tacos with hot sauce, the burn you feel in your mouth
while you are eating spicy foods, sweating when you
eat spicy foods, your eyes tearing when you eat a lot of
spicy food”). This subscale involves enjoying oral irri-
tation. Note that this factor includes two of five items
that involve enjoying the physiological response (sweat-
ing, eye tearing) to irritants A third subscale (DISGUST)
includes “disgusting jokes”, “disgusting experiences (like
a medical exhibit about body fluids and products with
real specimens)”, “pinching pimples” and “picking your
nose”. This factor differs from the others in that, al-
though it clearly involves an hedonic reversal, it is not
a reversal of an innately negative response. Rather, dis-
gust is a negative emotion that is acquired beginning after
the first few years of life, and continues into adulthood.
The fourth subscale (FEAR) involves enjoyment of fear
(“thrill rides” and “frightening movies”, and one defen-
sive response, “pounding heart in response to frightening
experiences or movies”). An enjoyment of pain subscale
(PAIN) includes “massages which produce some pain”,
“flashes of cold pain (like the first few seconds when en-
tering a too cold shower or the ocean)”, and “flashes of
hot pain (like the first few seconds when entering a too hot
bath)”. The remaining three subscales have only two ex-
emplars each. A sixth subscale (STRONG/ALCOHOL)
is enjoyment of strong, innately negative alcoholic tastes,
specifically “beer” and “scotch”. The seventh subscale
(EXHAUST) encompasses “the feeling of being phys-
ically active (for example starting to sweat, your heart
pounding, etc.) during exertion” and “the feeling of be-
ing physically exhausted, after extended effort”. The fi-
nal subscale (BITTER) includes enjoying “bitter foods”
and “unsweetened coffee”. All eight subscales correlated
positively with each other (see Table 2). The lowest cor-
relation is .11 for SAD and STRONG/ALCOHOL and
the highest is .47 for DISGUST and PAIN, with EX-
HAUST and PAIN next at .44.
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
442
Table 2: Subscale summary statistics. All correlations are significant at p< .001, except .11 which is significant at
p<.05.
Measure Mean SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. SAD 44.3 24.7 -
2. BURN 38.1 25.3 .22 -
3. DISGUST 30.7 22.2 .34 .28 -
4. FEAR 44.7 25.8 .26 .25 .42 -
5. PAIN 29.8 20.3 .36 .33 .47 .35 -
6. ALCOHOL 33.6 28.8 .11 .29 .37 .27 .32 -
7. EXHAUST 57.0 26.8 .37 .24 .36 .28 .44 .27 -
8. BITTER 25.4 23.3 .31 .31 .33 .22 .40 .33 .21
3.2 Response to specific items
In Table 3, the results from each sample are listed by
individual items, organized by subscales. The table re-
ports mean, standard deviation, and median for each
item and each subscale, along with the percent of sub-
jects who reported liking greater than 50, and the percent
who reported 0. The highest mean subscale scores are
active/exhaustion (EXHAUST: 55.2, 62%>50) and sad
(SAD: 42.6, 41.4%>50).
In general, the liking scores are not normally dis-
tributed. There was considerable over-representation of
subjects in both extremes (strong like, above 70, and
strong dislike, below 30). For individual items, the high-
est level of liking (mean score, averaged across the two
samples), is for feeling physically active (mean 60.4,
with 62% scoring over 50), followed by thrill rides (56.5,
64%), feeling exhausted after physical activity (55.2,
58%), spicy food (55.0, 64%), and sad music (47.6, 55%).
Lowest scores are flashes of cold pain (16.8, 12%) and
stinky cheese (20.2, 18%). Stinky cheese shows the high-
est level of 0 scores (43%).
Overall, scores are about ten points lower for the
MTurk sample, the main exception being BURN, where
the scores are about equal. The pattern of responses is
similar for the two groups: the 29 mean scores for the stu-
dent sample correlate .90 (p<.001) with the correspond-
ing 29 means for the MTurk sample.
3.3 Sex differences
Females were not significantly different from males for
most subscales (Table 4). However, liking for SAD was
much higher in females in the student sample (p<.001),
and higher (p<.05) in the MTurk sample. For all five man-
ifestations of liking sad (novels, movies, paintings, mu-
sic, enjoying crying), females scored higher than males,
often significantly so, for both samples. In both sam-
ples, preferences for STRONG/ALCOHOL was higher
(p<.001) in males. There was no overall sex difference in
liking for the mean for the 29 initially negative activities.
3.4 Link to sensation seeking
We divided our sensation seeking results (only available
from students) into the four factors described by Zuck-
erman (1979): thrill seeking, experience seeking, dis-
inhibition, and boredom susceptibility. The correlation
between these four subscales and our eight subscales is
displayed in Table 5. The mean score for all 29 items
correlated .44 (p<.001) with the full sensation seeking
scale score, while the highest correlation between our
mean scale score and the sensation seeking subscales
was .40 (p<.001) for thrill seeking. Of our eight be-
nign masochism factors, it was FEAR that showed the
strongest link to sensation seeking (r= .40 with total sen-
sation seeking score), with the highest subscale link also
for thrill seeking (r= .38 with thrill seeking subscale).
The single highest correlation between our eight factors
and the four sensation seeking subscales was .50 for AL-
COHOL and disinhibition. Of 24 correlations between
our eight factors and the three most relevant sensation
seeking subscales (excluding boredom susceptibility), all
were positive and 18 were significant at p<.01 or better
(Table 5). Boredom susceptibility is the only subscale
of Sensation Seeking that does not correlate substantially
with any of our eight hedonic reversal subscales, and the
correlation between the mean of the 29 hedonic reversal
items and the boredom susceptibility subscale is only r =
.08. Notably, sadness, disgust and mouth burn, the three
factors that might be considered “dearousing”, showed
the lowest correlations with thrill seeking (Table 5).
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
443
Table 3: Descriptive statistics by item and subscale for both samples.
Students MTurk
Mean SD Median %>501%=02Mean SD Median %>501%=02
SAD 49.2 23.8 50.0 50.4 0.4 36.2 24.1 37.0 32.7 4.1
Sad movies 53.1 28.9 60.0 59.5 4.5 37.3 29.9 35.0 45.6 13.6
Sad novels 48.4 49.5 50.0 56.4 7.5 36.0 31.7 30.0 37.4 15.0
Crying to sad 48.0 31.1 50.0 54.8 8.8 33.0 30.1 25.0 38.1 17.0
Sad music 53.4 28.9 50.0 60.7 3.7 41.9 30.1 45.0 49.7 9.5
Sad paintings 43.3 28.7 45.0 49.1 7.3 33.0 29.1 27.5 37.7 17.8
BURN 39.1 24.3 40.0 33.5 3.7 36.5 26.9 32.0 34.7 10.2
Mouth burn 40.4 30.3 40.0 43.0 13.2 35.4 32.8 30.0 41.5 29.3
Spicy food 55.5 29.9 60.0 64.9 4.5 54.5 35.1 60.0 63.9 14.3
Eyes tearing 28.3 26.1 20.0 27.7 19.7 23.4 29.4 10.0 25.2 38.8
Tacos with hot sauce 45.2 33.1 50.0 53.8 16.8 47.3 36.0 50.0 53.7 20.4
Sweating 24.9 27.7 10.0 24.3 28.9 21.8 28.0 10.0 24.7 43.2
DISGUST 36.3 20.8 35.0 25.6 2.1 21.5 21.3 12.5 13.6 12.9
Disgusting jokes 46.2 29.1 50.0 52.9 5.4 27.6 31.0 11.0 26.5 25.9
Disgusting experiences 32.2 30.8 20.0 34.0 22.0 19.7 30.9 1.0 20.4 46.3
Pinching pimples 36.2 31.0 30.0 41.9 20.7 19.0 27.4 3.0 21.1 45.6
Picking nose 30.7 27.7 20.0 32.8 17.4 19.4 26.3 5.0 19.7 42.2
FEAR 49.1 24.3 47.8 48.8 1.2 37.6 26.8 36.7 32.0 7.5
Pounding heart 44.3 28.3 47.5 50.0 7.9 29.0 29.8 20.0 32.0 25.2
Frightening Movies 39.7 30.6 32.5 41.7 12.0 34.1 34.3 22.0 39.5 28.6
Thrill rides 63.3 31.3 70.0 73.6 5.4 49.7 37.8 55.0 54.8 15.1
PAIN 34.8 19.8 36.2 28.5 3.7 21.6 18.4 17.7 10.9 15.6
Massage pain 53.8 30.3 60.0 62.6 7.2 36.5 32.2 30.0 40.6 19.6
Flashes cold pain 19.4 22.8 10.0 13.6 30.6 14.1 21.5 5.0 10.9 40.8
Flashes hot pain 32.2 27.8 30.0 29.8 19.4 14.8 22.4 5.0 12.9 44.2
ALCOHOL 37.3 27.5 36.2 36.8 13.7 27.7 30.0 15.0 27.4 30.8
Beer 45.6 32.2 50.0 51.3 14.5 35.5 37.2 20.0 40.7 35.2
Scotch 29.0 29.4 20.0 33.2 31.2 19.3 29.0 0.0 20.1 50.4
EXHAUST 62.4 25.1 65.0 72.3 0.8 48.0 27.3 50.0 51.7 6.1
Physically exhausted 58.8 29.5 65.0 67.6 4.6 41.2 31.7 40.0 48.3 17.7
Physically active 66.1 26.6 70.0 78.1 1.7 54.8 31.4 60.0 67.3 8.2
BITTER 27.0 23.9 20.0 22.0 10.8 22.7 22.2 17.5 15.6 25.9
Bitter foods 26.2 24.6 20.0 22.5 19.6 19.6 22.8 10.0 15.6 34.0
Unsweet coffee 28.7 31.0 15.0 30.7 29.0 25.6 34.1 5.0 25.5 44.1
MISC.
Gory movies 32.6 30.0 20.0 32.2 17.6 23.2 31.2 6.5 21.9 41.1
Stinky cheese 23.2 27.3 10.0 20.7 33.3 17.4 28.1 0.0 19.2 53.4
Anger fiction 41.8 26.8 45.0 48.5 7.2 27.8 27.9 20.0 31.5 26.7
MEANALL341.0 13.9 41.2 28.5 0.0 30.7 15.5 30.7 10.2 0.7
1Percent of subjects scoring above 50. 2Percent of subjects scoring 0. 3Mean of all 29
variables.
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
444
Table 4: Sex differences for 8 subscales and overall.
Students MTurk
Female Male Female Male
Mean1SD Mean2SD t Mean1SD Mean2SD t
SAD 56.3 23.6 40.2 20.9 5.533∗∗∗ 39.0 23.3 30.5 25.1 2.013
BURN 37.0 25.0 41.7 23.3 1.496 35.7 27.8 38.2 25.1.530
DISGUST 34.6 21.1 38.5 28.2 1.426 21.1 21.0 22.2 22.1.309
FEAR 47.8 26.3 50.7 21.5.915 36.3.27.9 40.2 24.3.813
PAIN 36.3 20.0 33.0 19.5 1.262 21.5 18.7 18.7 18.0 1.00
EXHAUST 61.8 27.3 63.1 22.0.413 48.8 27.5 96.3 26.9.503
ALCOHOL 32.1 25.4 44.0 28.9 3.360∗∗∗ 21.7 26.7 39.9 22.9 3.584∗∗∗
BITTER 24.9 24.0 29.7 23.5 1.549 22.8 21.8 22.6 23.3.060
MEANALL240.7 14.1 41.0 14.0.179 30.4 14.7 31.1 17.0.230
1nfor specific subscales (n for MEANALL): Female students n=132-135 (126); male students n=107
(98); female MTurk n=99 (97); Male MTurk n=48 (46). 2Mean of all 29 activities. p<.05, ∗∗∗ p<.001.
3.5 Direct probing of benign masochism
In a study in which chili likers in Mexico and the USA
rated their liking for successively more irritating crack-
ers, with irritation titrated by levels of Capsicum oleo-
resin (Rozin & Schiller, 1980), we found that for many
individuals, the most preferred level of irritation was just
below the level that they found unpleasant (or refused to
sample) This was one of the findings that led us to pos-
tulate benign masochism. In the present study, we ask
directly whether the favorite level of enjoyment of an he-
donic reversal is just below the level of unacceptable dis-
comfort. We asked this question about seven activities in
about half (n= 66) of the MTurk sample, after completion
of the liking ratings of 30 activities. Subjects received the
following instructions:
“Indicate how much you+ agree with each of the fol-
lowing questions. 0 = disagree strongly, 5 = neither agree
nor disagree, 10= agree strongly. You can use any num-
ber between 0 and 10. If you do not like the item at
all, place an X in the answer space.” Each item had the
same form, as illustrated by: “My favorite roller coaster
is the scariest I can put up with.” Equivalent statements
(listed in full in Table 6) probed mouth burn, painful mas-
sage, stinky cheese, disgusting cartoon, sad music, and
sad story/novel (seven situations).
We eliminated a response from analysis if any subject
placed an “X” in the answer space, resulting in 48–58
subjects per question, depending on the question. In Ta-
ble 6, we report the percent of responding subjects who
endorsed each of the seven statements followed by the
percent of endorsement for those who indicated strong
liking (mean score >50) on the relevant question from
the 29 hedonic reversal exemplars. We count endorse-
ment as some level of agreement, a score greater than
or equal to six. The results that most strongly support
the benign masochism prediction occur for roller coaster
rides, with 59% agreeing that their favorite roller coaster
was the scariest that they could put up with, and 82%
who rated the activity itself as 50 or greater (Table 6).
The lowest level of agreement was for painful massage,
with 24% agreement (29% of those scoring 50 or more
on the pleasure question; Table 6). The results for all
seven questions are displayed in Table 6. For the strong
likers (>50 score), all but painful massage were endorsed
by 50% or more of subjects.
Discussion
There are many exemplars of hedonic reversals (and our
list makes no claim to be complete). Our findings suggest
a number of features of hedonic reversals.
1. There are patterns of liking, most particularly a co-
herent set of likings across domains for sadness, and
liking for the experiences of oral irritation disgust,
fear, and pain. Oral irritation (pain) does not seem
strongly related to liking for other forms of pain. It
seems local to the mouth.
2. People tend to like their physiological reactions to
innately negative experiences. These reactions are
presumably part of the body’s defensive responses to
reduce the negative experience (and the bodily harm
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
445
Table 5: Correlations (Pearson rs) between sensation seeking (SS, subscales and total score) and liking for three major
negative subscales (students only).
Reversal subscale
or total
Thrill
seeking
Experience
seeking
Disinhibition Boredom
susceptibility
SS total
score
SAD .04 .23∗∗∗ .02 .17∗∗ .04
BURN .14.26∗∗∗ .09 .10 .22∗∗
DISGUST .13.30∗∗∗ .24∗∗∗ .17∗∗ .32∗∗∗
FEAR .38∗∗∗ .28∗∗∗ .24∗∗∗ .10 .40∗∗∗
PAIN .19∗∗ .20∗∗ .23∗∗∗ .03 .24∗∗∗
ALCOHOL .20∗∗ .28∗∗∗ .50∗∗∗ .18∗∗ .45∗∗∗
EXHAUST .33∗∗∗ .13.19∗∗ .04 .30∗∗∗
BITTER .19∗∗ .17∗∗ .21∗∗ .09 .26∗∗∗
MEANALL .30∗∗∗ .40∗∗∗ .35∗∗∗ .08 .44∗∗∗
p<.05, ∗∗ p<.01, ∗∗∗ p<.001 (2 tailed).
Table 6: Endorsement of benign masochism to specific experiences.
Statement % endorsing
(agreement6)
% endorsing out of
subjects who scored > 50
on relevant Liking item1
My favorite roller coaster is the scariest I can put up with. 59% 82% (Thrill rides)
My favorite level of mouth burn from chili is about the highest level
I can stand, before it gets too painful.
43% 67% (Burn mouth)
My favorite massage is the most painful one I can stand 24% 29% (Massage pain)
My favorite stinky cheese is about the stinkiest cheese I can stand 25% 50% (Stinky cheese)
My favorite disgusting cartoon is the most disgusting one that I can
stand to read.
28% 64% (Disgusting jokes)
The saddest music I like best is about as sad as I can stand. 37% 56% (Sad music)
The saddest story/novel I like best is about as sad as I can stand. 29% 58% (Sad novels)
1Relevant item given in parentheses.
it presumably portends). Examples are eye tearing
and sweating in response to chili pepper, and pound-
ing heart associated with fear. Enjoying crying in
response to sad experiences is probably another ex-
ample.
3. Males are more likely to enjoy strong/alcoholic
tastes, while females are more likely to enjoy sad-
ness. The greater female preference for sad films
or sad music has been reported previously (Huron,
2011; Oliver, 1993; Schramm & Wirth, 2010).
4. Sensation seeking is related to enjoying negative
experiences, most strikingly enjoying fear. It is
notable that there is evidence that both SAD and
BURN involve principally parasympathetic arousal,
and hence show a less obvious linkage to sensation
seeking.
5. A substantial proportion of individuals, in accord
with a benign masochism prediction, report that
their favorite level of an originally negative activity
is just below, in intensity, a level that is not tolera-
ble. The distribution of liking for initially negative
activities is often bimodal. Although many individu-
als did not endorse the claim that their favorite level
of experience was just below an intolerable or ex-
tremely unpleasant level, the fact that many did is
itself, remarkable. It is extremely rare, in plotting
preference ratings as a function of stimulus intensity,
to report a very sharp drop from the peak preferred
level to a level of actual unpleasantness.
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
446
Our idea of benign masochism is supported as one of
perhaps multiple mechanisms of hedonic reversals by our
pattern of findings. Accounts based on desensitization
are not viable, since the negative experience seems to be
essential for hedonic reversals, and there is evidence that
desensitization does not accompany the acquisition of lik-
ing for the burn of chili peppers (Rozin, Mark & Schiller,
1981). Furthermore, likers of sad music report the same
auditory properties of the music (e.g., slow, soft) as do
dislikers (Guillot, Rozin & Rozin, unpublished observa-
tions). Since individuals enjoy the actual experience of
these negative events, cathartic or hedonic opponent pro-
cess accounts are inadequate to explain hedonic reversals
(Rozin, Ebert & Schull, 1982).
Accounts based on arousal also are not sufficient, be-
cause both sadness and disgust are associated with a re-
duction in arousal. The absence of robust animal exam-
ples of reversed aversions supports our more cognitive ac-
count. Co-activation is central to benign masochism, and
is supported here by the enjoyment of body defensive re-
sponses to oral irritation and fear, and perhaps sadness.
But co-activation does not explain the source of the net
positive affect. It is the “protective frame” (Apter, 1982,
1992), or distancing from a potential threat (de Wied et
al., 1994; Huron, 2011; Oliver, 1993; Schramm & Wirth,
2010) that is critical, and it is this process that sets the
stage for the activation of benign masochism. Distancing
has been clearly documented as playing a role in many
exemplars of threat-related humor (McGraw et al., 2012).
Distancing and benign masochism serve to explain the at-
traction to much fiction and to sad music.
We note that at least one of our subscales, enjoying
disgust, does not qualify as reversing an innate aversion,
because disgust is itself acquired. For convenience in pre-
sentation, we have subsumed it generally under innate
aversions. It is, of course, definitely a hedonic rever-
sal, and a reversal based on a rather strong aversion. The
aversion is probably universally or almost universally ac-
quired in early-middle childhood.
Our results raise some difficult questions when the fre-
quency of different activities are compared. Why is the
degree of liking for sad movies or music, or physical ex-
haustion, or thrill rides much higher than the scores for
liking stinky cheese, bitter foods, or flashes of cold pain?
We do not know; in part this may be due to both exposure
to the relevant experiences and cultural norms. For exam-
ple, we are confident that enjoyment of the burn of chili
pepper is more common and more extreme in Mexico
than in the United States. Perhaps more puzzling is the
fact that some negative sensations never seem to be liked
by anyone: nausea is a salient example, and perhaps this
is true for any visceral pain (as distinguished from muscle
pain). Visceral pain or other discomfort (e.g., nausea) is
essentially a signal that something is not working prop-
erly, and this strong link to pathology may interfere with
a “benign” interpretation. In addition, it is very difficult
to be certain that visceral discomfort is actually “safe”,
thus making it difficult to create the distance that allows
for a protective frame or “benign” interpretation. It is in
fact the case that almost all of our benign masochism ac-
tivities are actually harmless, though the body responds
to them as though they are harmful. Perhaps recreational
parachuting or scaling of cliffs do not qualify, but these
activities seem more exceptional than those we study in
this paper. It is also notable that we have no experience
of people claiming to enjoy boredom, though its oppo-
site, overstimulation, may be quite popular (e.g., amongst
teenagers).
Our measures of benign masochism show consistently
higher values (by approximately 10 points) for students
in comparison to the MTurk sample, with the exception
of the items about oral irritation. This could be an effect
of the age difference in the samples, and/or it could result
from cohort or sociocultural differences. The fact that the
groups do not differ on liking of oral irritation makes it
unlikely that the difference has to do with interpretation
of the scales. For the present, we do not have a good
account of this difference.
One limitation of our study is that our survey of neg-
ative experiences is far from complete, though it is the
most thorough listing, to date. In particular, we did not
include an important category of negative experiences:
those that really do signal danger, that is, those with-
out a fully established “protective frame” (Apter, 1982,
1992). Dangerous activities like recreational parachute
jumping, or climbing cliffs are sources of enjoyment, pre-
sumably for the same reason as the activities we discuss
here. Loewenstein (1999) has discussed the motives for
mountain climbing, and one of the four he cites, mastery,
probably relates to benign masochism. Mastery might be
expanded to include overcoming or rising above bodily
signals of danger. Another domain that our 29 items do
not include is “dark tourism,” the “attraction” of travel
to locations where horrific events have occurred, such as
Auschwitz (Lennon & Foley, 2000).
A second limitation is that all of our respondents were
Americans. Both the actual activities that comprise our
benign masochism category, and certainly, the relative
frequency of these, will surely vary by culture.
This study is an early step in our understanding of he-
donic reversals. Perhaps our most interesting finding is
that there is a tendency for some people to enjoy a wide
variety of sad experiences and crying at them, and that
this tendency is more common in females. More than
any other hedonic reversal, the liking for sadness is en-
gaged by works of art; it has an aesthetic quality. If we
had a better understanding of the function of sadness, we
would no doubt be able to make more sense of this.
Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013 Benign masochism
447
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