The Up- and Down-Regulation of Amusement: Experiential, Behavioral,

and Autonomic Consequences

Nicole R. Giuliani, Kateri McRae, and James J. Gross

Stanford University

A growing body of research has examined the regulation of negative emotions. However, little is known about

the physiological processes underlying the regulation of positive emotions, such as when amusement is

enhanced during periods of stress or attenuated in the pursuit of social goals. The aim of this study was to

examine the psychophysiological consequences of the cognitive up- and down-regulation of amusement. To

address this goal, participants viewed brief, amusing film clips while measurements of experience, behavior,

and peripheral physiology were collected. Using an event-related design, participants viewed each film under

the instructions either to (a) watch, (b) use cognitive reappraisal to increase amusement, or (c) use cognitive

reappraisal to decrease amusement. Findings indicated that emotion experience, emotion-expressive behavior,

and autonomic physiology (including heart rate, respiration, and sympathetic nervous system activation) were

enhanced and diminished in accordance with regulation instructions. This finding is a critical extension of the

growing literature on the voluntary regulation of emotion, and has the potential to help us better understand

how people use humor in the service of coping and social goals.

Keywords: emotion regulation, amusement, reappraisal, psychophysiology, positive emotion

The ability to regulate negative and positive emotions in a

context-sensitive manner is a hallmark of successful human functioning.

In the past decade, research on emotion regulation has

developed rapidly (Gross, 2007). However, studies have focused

nearly exclusively on negative emotion. In particular, much work

has focused on the down-regulation of emotions like disgust and

sadness (Levesque et al., 2003; Ochsner et al., 2004), perhaps

because of the clinical significance of the mis- and dys-regulation

of negative emotion (Taylor & Liberzon, 2007).

Despite this emphasis on negative emotion, there is a growing

awareness of the important role played by positive emotions in a

variety of life outcomes (Ryff & Singer, 1998). One important

emotion in this regard is amusement, which is a frequent target of

regulation, such as when we down-regulate it by shifting our

attention to avoid inappropriate laughter, or up-regulate it by

focusing on a humorous aspect of a negative situation to reduce


Indeed, the up-regulation of amusement may be particularly

important to well-being, as correlations have been documented

between increased humor and psychological resilience (Thorson,

Powell, Sarmany-Schuller, & Hampes, 1997), immune functioning

(Dowling, Hockenberry, & Gregory, 2003), and cardiovascular

health (Taylor, Bagozzi, & Gaither, 2005). Therefore, as little

research exists on this powerful coping technique, this study seeks

to extend prior research on the regulation of negative emotion to

the cognitive up- and down-regulation of amusement. Before presenting

this study, we first review the cognitive regulation of

negative emotion, and then consider further why it is important to

extend this analysis to positive emotion.

Using Reappraisal to Regulate Negative Emotion

One prominent form of cognitive emotion regulation is reappraisal,

which involves changing how we think in order to change

the way we respond emotionally (Giuliani & Gross, 2007). A large

number of studies have shown that reappraisal is an effective

means of minimizing the impact of a negative situation. Recent

models of reappraisal have built on the extensive literature concerning

cognitive control, positing that increased activation of

control mechanisms during reappraisal modulates emotion-related

activation (Ochsner & Gross, 2007). The physiological and neural

substrates of these reappraisal-related mechanisms have been

shown to be distinguishable in the context of negative emotion by

the divergent consequences of up- and down-regulation for emotional

outcomes (Jackson, Malmstadt, Larson, & Davidson, 2000;

Kunzmann, Kupperbusch, & Levenson, 2005; Ochsner et al.,


Extending the Study of Emotion Regulation to

Positive Emotion

One limitation of the literature on reappraisal is the relative

lack of attention to positive emotion. This is an important

Nicole R. Giuliani, Kateri McRae, and James J. Gross, Department of

Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California.

Preparation of this article was supported by National Institutes of Health

(NIH) Grant R01 MH58147. We thank the members of the Stanford

Psychophysiology Laboratory for their help with this project, with particular

thanks to Allison Brian, Nathaniel Nakashima, Thomas Nguyen,

Ephraim Trahktenberg, and Brian Urbon.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to James J.

Gross, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, 450 Serra Mall,

Building 420, Stanford, CA 94305. E-mail:

omission because the association between positive emotions

and health outcomes may be attributable to enhanced coping

responses (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003; Tugade,

Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004). One coping response that has been

of particular interest in this context is the purposeful engagement

of humor during trying times. According to the Diagnostic and

Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM–

IV–TR; American Psychiatric Association, 1994), humor may be

defined as a coping mechanism whereby “the individual deals with

emotional conflict or external stressors by emphasizing the amusing

or ironic aspects of the conflict or stressor” (p. 812).

It has been shown that inducing amusement (e.g., via films)

elicits elevated levels of smiling behavior, somatic activity, skin

conductance, respiratory activation, and sympathetic activation of

the cardiovascular system (Gross & Levenson, 1997). It is not

known, however, whether these behavioral and physiological consequences

of amusement are all magnified when amusement is

cognitively enhanced. Similarly, it is also not known whether these

behavioral and physiological consequences of amusement are all

reduced when amusement is cognitively diminished (as when one

is trying to curb situationally appropriate amusement responses).

Despite the importance of positive emotions, only two studies

have examined the cognitive up- and down-regulation of positive

emotion (Beauregard, Levesque, & Bourgouin, 2001; Kim & Hamann,

2007). While these are important demonstrations of the

power of cognition to regulate positive emotion, they have significant

limitations. First, neither of these studies focused on amusement,

which is one of the most frequently regulated positive

emotions (Gross, Richards, & John, 2006) and plays a special role

in coping (Dowling et al., 2003). Second, each has methodological

limitations. One study used erotic films, which have limited generalizability,

and employed a block-design to compare regulated

and unregulated conditions, which makes it difficult to discern the

effect of condition order (Beauregard et al., 2001). The second

study used an event-related design, which is conducive to drawing

strong conclusions about the differences between conditions, but

used static images that targeted positive emotion more generally,

which may not be effective at eliciting moderate to high levels of

targeted positive affect (Kim & Hamann, 2007).

The Present Study

The present study aimed to examine the experiential, behavioral,

and physiological consequences of up- and down-regulating

amusement. Using short, amusing film clips, we tested the hypothesis

that reappraising to increase and decrease amusement would

lead to respective increases and decreases in (1) amusement experience,

(2) amusement-related facial behavior, and (3) associated

autonomic responses.



Sixteen female undergraduates participated in this study (mean

age _ 18.8 years, SD _ 0.8; ethnic composition: 9 Caucasian, 4

mixed race, 2 Hispanic, 1 Asian) in exchange for class credit. Only

women were recruited due to gender differences in emotional

responsivity (Bradley, Codispoti, Sabatinelli, & Lang, 2001).


Amusing film clips consisted of 105 10- to 20-s segments from

Spike TV’s “Most Extreme Elimination Challenge,” previously

found to elicit a moderate level of amusement (between 3 and 6 on

the 8-point rating scale, mean _ 3.9) with low variation across

subjects (SD below 2.0, mean SD 1.6). Neutral stimuli consisted of

35 10- to 20-s clips from the film “On the Edge,” which contained

many of the features of the amusing clips, including rapid biological

motion, outdoor setting, and audible speech.


Participants were invited to the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory

for an individual session. Room, monitor, physiological

sensor, and videotape setup followed Gross (1998). Each participant

saw the same stimuli in the same order and viewed each film


once. Amusing film clips were presented with each of three regulation

cues (“look,” “increase,” or “decrease”) an approximately

equal number of times across participants. For all three amusement

conditions, instruction order was randomized with the limitation

that no more than two consecutive presentations of a particular cue

was allowed. Trials were divided into five runs of 28 trials each in

an event-related design. Timing for each trial was as follows: 1-s

instructional cue (“increase,” “look,” or “decrease”), 10- to 20-s

amusing or neutral film clip, 2-s affect rating, and 2-s relaxation

period indicated by an asterisk.

A total of 140 intermixed trials were shown, 35 for each of the

four trial types: “look neutral” (LN), “decrease amuse” (DA),

“look amuse” (LA), and “increase amuse” (IA). Neutral film clips

were only included in the “look” instruction condition. In the

“look” trial condition, participants were instructed to let their

responses to the film clips unfold naturally. In the “increase”

condition, participants were instructed to reappraise the clip in

order to maximize their amusement (i.e., to imagine that the man

tripping was not actually a game-show contestant, but instead a

personally relevant figure who takes himself very seriously). In the

“decrease” condition, participants were instructed to reappraise the

situation in order to minimize their amusement response to the clip

(i.e., to imagine how painful it was for the contestant to fall off of

the rope swing into the mud). Before beginning the experiment,

participants were carefully trained in strategies for each instruction

type. With feedback, the experimenter (N.G.) helped shape reappraisals

so that they involved the reinterpretation or recontextualization

of the clips, as opposed to distraction or the use of another

noncognitive strategy.


Experience. After viewing each film segment, participants

rated how amused they had felt during the film. Ratings of amusement

were obtained using an 8-point Likert scale (1 _ not amused,

8 _ very amused) via a keyboard. Participants could take as much

time as they needed to make this rating (M _ 188.8 ms, SD _


Facial behavior. Working with videotapes of subjects’ facial

behavior recorded during the task, expressions of amusement

(number of smiles, laughs) during each film presentation period

were rated by two independent coders blind to hypotheses and











experimental condition. Average interrater reliability was satisfactory,

with Cronbach’s alphas of 0.76 for smiles and 0.66 for laughs

( p _ .001 for all). The coders’ ratings were averaged to create one

smile and one laugh rating for each participant for each film.

Physiology. During the experimental session, physiological

channels previously found to be related to the experience and/or

regulation of emotion (Gross, 1998; Gross & Levenson, 1997;

Mauss, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2003) were sampled continuously at

400 Hz using laboratory software. Details of these measurements

can be found in Mauss et al. (2003). Briefly, heart rate was

calculated from R-R intervals in the electrocardiogram, and values

from abnormal beats were deleted and replaced by linearly interpolated

values. Mean arterial blood pressure was obtained from

the third finger of the nondominant hand by means of the Finapres

2300 (Ohmeda, Madison, WI) system, and beat-to-beat stroke

volume was measured using Wesseling’s validated pulse-contour

analysis method. Skin conductance response amplitude was derived

from a signal using a constant-voltage device to pass 0.5 V

between minielectrodes attached to the palmar surface of the

middle phalanges of the first and second fingers of the nondominant

hand. Respiratory rate was measured using an inductive

plethysmography device (Respitrace Corporation, Ardsley, NY)

connected to bands insulated wire coils placed around the abdomen

and chest. Respiratory rate was calculated breath-by-breath

using customized programs. Somatic activity was measured by a

piezo-electric device attached to the subject’s chair, which generates

an electrical signal proportional to the subject’s overall body

movement. Finger temperature was obtained using a small thermometer

attached to the participant’s last distal phalange. Finger

pulse amplitude was assessed using a plethysmograph transducer

on the tip of the participant’s second finger, and finger pulse

transit time was indexed by the time (ms) between the closest

previous R-wave and the upstroke of the peripheral pulse at the

finger. Ear pulse transit time was determined similarly using a UFI

plethysmograph (UFI, Morro Bay, CA) transducer on participant’s

left ear.

Data Reduction and Analysis

After data collection, customized analysis software (Wilhelm,

Grossman, & Roth, 1999) was applied to physiological data reduction,

artifact control, and computation of average physiological

scores for each participant for each of the four experimental

conditions (LN, DA, LA, IA). For the present analyses, we averaged

across the entire film clip presentation to obtain a mean value

for each measure. Each neutral film clip had an average value for

the “look” condition, and each amusing film clip had an average

value for the “decrease,” “look,” and “increase” conditions, which

were then averaged by condition across clips. To assess sympathetic

activation of the cardiovascular system, we employed a

method used by previous researchers to create a composite of

reverse- and z-scored finger pulse amplitude, finger pulse transit

time, ear pulse transit time, and finger temperature (Gross &

Levenson, 1997; Hagemann, Levenson, & Gross, 2006). Cronbach’s

alpha for these measures was satisfactory (0.69). These

measures were chosen as a collection of cardiovascular measures

thought to be principally sympathetically mediated (Bernston,

Quigley & Lozano, 2007). Repeated measures general linear models

(GLMs) were used to evaluate the effects of film type and


As a manipulation check, we analyzed emotional reactivity by

looking at changes from LN to LA for each measure. To test our

hypotheses, we analyzed up-regulation by assessing changes in

each measure from LA to IA, and analyzed down-regulation by

assessing changes from LA to DA.


Manipulation Check

To confirm that participants responded differently to amusing

and neutral films, paired t tests were performed to compare selfreported

amusement experience, facial behavior, and peripheral

physiology in LN and LA trials. As expected, participants reported

greater levels of amusement, showed more amusement-related

facial behavior, and had stronger respiratory and sympathetic

activation responses to amusing versus neutral films: self-reported

amusement, t(15) _ 4.93, p _ .001; coded number of smiles per

film clip, t(15) _ 5.08, p _ .001; coded number of laughs per film

clip, t(15) _ 3.49, p _ .003; respiration rate, t(15) _ 6.24, p _

.001; cardiovascular sympathetic activation composite, t(15) _

2.27, p _ .04. There were no significant differences between LN

and LA for heart rate ( p _ .12), mean blood pressure ( p _ .19),

skin conductance response amplitude ( p _ .86), and somatic

activity ( p _ .25). Means for all conditions are presented in

Figures 1 and 2.

Effects of Reappraisal

Experience. A repeated-measures analysis of variance

(ANOVA) of LA, IA, and DA instruction conditions revealed a

significant effect of reappraisal condition on experience, F(2,

14) _ 65.1, p _ .001. As shown in Figure 1a, planned comparisons

revealed that cognitive up- and down-regulation significantly modulated

amusement experience as compared to passive viewing.

Amusing films seen in the “increase” instruction condition were

rated as significantly more amusing than amusing films seen in the

“look” condition, F(1, 15) _ 54.5, p _ .001. Amusing films seen

in the “decrease” condition were rated as significantly less amusing

than those seen in the “look” condition, F(1, 15) _ 108.7, p _

.001. A post hoc comparison between DA and LN revealed that the

amusement elicited by amusing films seen in the “decrease” condition

was not significantly different than neutral films in the

“look” condition, p _ .75.

Behavior. ANOVAs revealed significant effects of reappraisal

on both measures of amusement-related facial behavior (Figure 1b

and 1c). For coded smiles, F(2, 14) _ 56.1, p _ .001, planned

comparisons demonstrated that cognitive up-regulation produced a

greater number of smiles than passive viewing, F(2, 14) _ 77.0,

p _ .001. Cognitive down-regulation produced a lesser number of

smiles than passive viewing, F(2, 14) _ 26.7, p _ .001. This

pattern was also seen in laughs, F(2, 14) _ 13.5, p _ .001; both

contrasts p _ .001. For smiles and laughs, the number of coded

facial behaviors elicited during the DA condition was only significantly

different than the number of smiles elicited by the LN

condition at the trend level (smiles: p _ .12, laughs: p _ .09).

Physiology. ANOVAs for five of the six physiological measures

revealed significant effects of reappraisal (see Figure 2). Activation





Figure 1. For all panels, means are for the film period; means that do not share a superscript differ at p _ .05.

LN _ “Look” instruction, neutral film; DA _ “Decrease” instruction, amusing film; LA _ “Look” instruction,

amusing film; IA _ “Increase” instruction, amusing film. A, Mean self-reported experience (Mean square error

[MSE] _ 1.104). B, Mean smiling behavior (MSE _ 0.100). C, Mean laughing behavior (MSE _ 0.039).

of the following measures was significantly increased during the

cognitive up-regulation of amusement: Heart rate, F(2, 14) _

10.9, p _ .01; mean blood pressure, F(2, 14) _ 16.3, p _ .001;

skin conductance response amplitude, F(2, 14) _ 8.3, p _ .004;

respiration rate, F(2, 14) _ 11.9, p _ .003; and sympathetic

activation of the cardiovascular system, F(2, 14) _ 13.6, p _ .001.

For all measures except skin conductance response amplitude

( p _ .07), planned comparisons between LA and IA were significant

at p _ .05. In addition, although the omnibus test for somatic

activity did not meet the threshold of significance, F(2, 14) _ 3.1,

p _ .08, the planned comparison between LA and IA was significant

(IA _ LA, p _ .022).

These measures were also significantly decreased by the downregulation

of amusement as compared to passive viewing. Planned

comparisons between LA and DA revealed that heart rate ( p _

.029), mean blood pressure ( p _ .001), skin conductance response

amplitude ( p _ .012), and respiration rate ( p _ .002) were all

significantly greater in the LA than the DA condition. In addition,

sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular system trended toward

significance in the hypothesized direction, p _ .08. For none

of the above measures was DA significantly different than LN (all

p _ .1).

In view of the known links between somatic activity and autonomic

responding (Obrist, 1981), we conducted secondary analyses

in which somatic activity was entered as a covariate. These

analyses of covariance (ANCOVAs) yielded the same pattern of

findings reported here. This finding is important because it suggests

that alterations in somatic activity were not responsible for

the regulation-related changes in autonomic responses observed in

this study.1


Prior studies have demonstrated that reappraisal of negative

emotion-eliciting stimuli modulates the experiential, behavioral,

physiological, and neural components of emotion in accordance

with the regulatory goal (Gross, 1998; Ochsner et al., 2004).































Although two studies have previously examined the regulation of

positive emotion, no study to date has demonstrated that experi-

1 In addition, we assessed the relations among all dependent measures

reported in Figures 1 and 2. To do this, we correlated our measures of

changes from LA to IA and LA to DA. The change in amusement

experience from LA to IA was significantly correlated with mean blood

pressure (r _ .56, p _ .003). The change in smile behavior from LA to DA

was significantly correlated with sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular

system (r _ .67, p _ .005) and skin conductance response amplitude

(r _ .66, p _ .006).













Figure 2. For all panels, means are for the film period; means that do not share a superscript differ at p _ .05.

LN _ “Look” instruction, neutral film; DA _ “Decrease” instruction, amusing film; LA _ “Look” instruction,

amusing film; IA _ “Increase” instruction, amusing film. A, Mean heart rate (Mean square error [MSE] _

1.498). B, Mean blood pressure (MSE _ 1.345). C, Mean skin conductance response amplitude (MSE _ 0.009).

D, Mean respiration rate (MSE _ 0.862). E, Mean composite of sympathetic activation of the cardiovascular

system (MSE _ 0.029). F, Mean somatic activity (MSE _ 0.054).



ential, behavioral, and peripheral physiological responses associated

with amusement are subject to cognitive regulation. The facial

behavior and autonomic physiology measures serve as essential

confirmation the modulation of amusement represented by the

experiential self-report (Mauss, Levenson, McCarter, Wilhelm, &

Gross, 2005) due to the strong demand characteristics of this type

of emotion regulation task.

In accord with previous studies on the autonomic physiology of

amusement, measures of respiration rate (Gross & Levenson,

1997), sympathetic activation (Gross & Levenson, 1997), and skin

conductance (Christie & Friedman, 2004) were all found to be

significantly related to amusement reactivity (LA _ LN). In addition,

amusement-related facial behavior and autonomic responses

followed the cognitively driven changes in self-reported

amusement experience during the two regulation conditions. This

coherence among amusement experience, behavior and physiology

supports the view that cognitive regulation changes emotion as a

whole, and not just subjective experience.

These data strongly support the idea that purposefully upregulating

a positive emotion like amusement increases the same

beneficial outcomes as naturally experiencing it. If, during times of

prolonged negative emotion and/or stress, one is able to identify a

potentially amusing aspect of the situation and cognitively upregulate

it, these data show that the individual would experience

the same physical and experiential consequences as if the amusement

had been generated in the absence of regulatory efforts. This

provides the first experimental evidence of the mechanisms underlying

the many documented links between humor and increased

physical and psychological health. Consequently, this work has

implications for the treatment and prevention of stress-related

illness, as these cognitive coping techniques may be easily taught

so that those who do not naturally laugh in the face of stress may

also reap the benefits.

To place these results in the context of previous work done on

the reappraisal of positive emotion more generally, we compared

the pattern of self-report ratings to those found by Kim and

Hamman (2007). In both studies, up-regulation resulted in significantly

increased experienced positive emotion, and downregulation

resulted in significantly decreased emotion reports (Kim

& Hamann, 2007). However, the extent of down-regulation observed

was different across experiments. Reappraising to decrease

amusement brought amusement ratings down to the same level as

watching a neutral film, but reappraising the positive pictures used

by Kim and Hamann left levels of positive emotion significantly

elevated above neutral. This may be a function of the positive and

neutral stimuli chosen each study (dynamic vs. static), or an effect

specific to amusement.

























One noteworthy limitation of this study is that we chose to limit our

sample to female participants in light of previously documented

gender differences in affective responding to emotional stimuli. Consequently,

it is unknown whether similar results would be observed

in a male sample. The results of this study demonstrate that prior

work on the psychophysiology of cognitive regulation of negative

emotion can be extended to positive emotion. Reappraising while

watching these brief film clips significantly modulated the experience,

facial behavior, and peripheral physiology associated with

amusement. These results contribute to our growing understanding

of the cognitive regulation of all emotions, both negative and



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Received June 29, 2007

Revision received February 26, 2008

Accepted June 17, 2008 _