What is it about?

How does experiencing a certain vs. uncertain world affect our reactions to new emotional events? Past experience can influence our subjective reactions to future affective stimuli. In particular, subjective affective experience is crucially affected by the degrees of uncertainty experienced in the past. In two online studies we investigated how learning certain vs. uncertain probabilistic relationships impacts future affective experience. As main innovations, we used a learning paradigm to manipulate prior visual experience, and we studied how the latter impacts affective ratings within the same visual modality and when it crosses over to sounds.

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Why is it important?

Let us imagine a person who is celebrating their birthday and is about to unwrap their presents. From previous parties, they know that their parents often give very nice gifts. They will therefore predict a joyful experience when they unwrap their parent’s present, and they will be particularly pleased if the present meets their expectation. Their aunt, however, has previously given both terrible and awesome gifts. Thus, they will not have any reliable previous experience about the likelihood of receiving cool or awful items from their aunt. As a result, it will be difficult to predict their subjective reaction when unwrapping their present, and maybe they will be particularly upset if the gift turns out to be an old-fashioned knitted sweater. Similarly, in our work we investigated how being exposed to previous certain versus uncertain scenarios could affect people’s expectancies and subjective reactions to new affective events.


We demonstrated that, without the need of any explicit instruction, people are able to build affective predictive models from the simple exposure to contingencies between stimuli. Those affective predictive models, and their associated reliability value, are then used in a subsequent moment to coherently predict (and make meaning of) relevant events in the present environment: the more reliable the available predictive model, the more subjective expectancies draw on it to make meaning of environmental cues and predict the emotional valence of upcoming stimuli. Furthermore, we demonstrated that this process is generalizable across sensory modalities.

Fiorella Del Popolo Cristaldi
Universita degli Studi di Padova

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This page is a summary of: Does your past define you? The role of previous visual experience in subjective reactions to new affective pictures and sounds., Emotion, September 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/emo0001168.
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