The Up- and Down-Regulation of Amusement: Experiential, Behavioral,
and Autonomic Consequences
Nicole R. Giuliani, Kateri McRae, and James J. Gross
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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
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
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.
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
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 _