Social influences on affective responses to negative experiences

Sammanfattning: As social human beings, the way we emotionally respond to what happens around us is often regulated by our interactions with others. The overall aim of this thesis is to advance the understanding of how social influences surrounding negative experiences can affect the formation, regulation and transfer of affective responses. Throughout four studies, we examined the impact of different kinds of social influences (face-to-face and online) surrounding various negative experiences (experimental analogues for trauma experiences), and how these social influences impact affective responses (from self-reported measures to physiological responses). In Study I, dyads of participants underwent a vicarious threat conditioning paradigm to investigate whether physiological synchrony between them during learning predicted the strength of observationally acquired conditioned responses and examine the potential role of trait empathy. As predicted, increased physiological synchronization during learning led to a stronger CS differentiation during the test phase, but unlike our predictions, self-reported empathy was not found to be related to physiological coupling. These findings support the role of social influences in the formation of affective responses and indicate that the physiological synchrony captured here may be more related to experience sharing rather than individuals’ tendency to empathize with others. Study II tested whether threat conditioning generated persistent intrusive memories of neutral stimuli, and whether different social support interactions after threat acquisition modulated the expression of emotional memories, as measured by skin-conductance responses and number of intrusive memories. Social support interactions consisted of two social support conditions (supportive social interaction versus unsupportive social interaction) and a control group (no social interaction). Our results indicated that threat conditioning generated intrusive memories, with greater number of intrusions of CS+ than CS- and these intrusive memories were still measurable one year later, especially for individuals with higher trait anxiety and a greater number of previous trauma experiences. Our findings support the literature indicating the contribution of associative processes in the formation of intrusive memories and demonstrate the advantage of adding the measure of intrusive memories to a standard Pavlovian threat conditioning paradigm for investigating short and long term intrusive memories. Finally, these findings suggest that the specific the support interactions used in this study might not modulate the processes underlying memory consolidation and call attention to the difficulty of operationalizing social support interactions in an experimental context. Study III is composed of two online sub-studies investigating the social transmission of threat and safety evaluations. In sub-study 1, we combined behavioral and computational modeling approaches to estimate the influence of others’ online evaluations of negative pictures on participant’s own evaluations. In sub-study 2, we replicated these findings and further demonstrated that others’ evaluations led participants to shift their affective response to these pictures. Interestingly, seeing that others evaluate pictures as safe resulted in individuals feeling less distressed towards these pictures, suggesting that the observation of social safety cues online could attenuate the spread of negative emotions. Our findings offer a mechanism for how people integrate their own and others’ experiences when exposed to emotional content online. Furthermore, knowing how threat and safety information propagate online and its impact on people’s wellbeing could be an important tool to prevent the impact of the spread of threatening information online. Study IV asked whether using the trauma film paradigm in an online setting could induce similar emotional responses as in-lab experiments. We also tested whether reading previous participants’ appraisals after watching the trauma film modulated participants’ emotional responses, as measured by changes in negative mood and number of intrusive memories during the subsequent seven days. The trauma film online replicated previous in-lab results, although with a somewhat lower mean number of intrusive memories. Our results indicated that reading positive comments after watching the film decreased negative mood, compared to reading negative comments or no comments. Reading others’ appraisal did not modulate the number of intrusive memories. These results demonstrate that the digital version of the trauma film paradigm can be used as an experimental analogue for exposure to aversive content online and enables the experimental investigation of how such content impacts mental health. Moreover, our findings indicate an improvement of mood following the exposure to negative visual content through positive social reappraisal, paving the way towards this goal. These four studies demonstrate that vast range of ways in which social interactions influence affective responses, from verbal to non-verbal exchanges in both face-to-face and online settings. Our work also illustrates the complexity of experimentally investigating social influences and the specific processes involved.

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