Can you tell me how aroused you are by this picture?
Can you also tell me how happy versus sad it makes you feel?
I am sure you could give me a rating, e.g. on the famous Self-Assessment-Mannikin Scale.
However, a recent study by Kron and colleagues has cast serious doubt on this specific aspect of self-reported experience. They found that their participants’ bodies were well able to distinguish between arousal (higher = higher skin conductance) and valence (associated with changes in heart rate), but in self-reports arousal could also be accounted for as something else: the overall intensity of feelings.When summing participants’ ratings on scales of pleasantness and unpleasantness, variance in arousal ratings was explained to a high degree.
To me, this finding was intriguing, especially as we had just used the SAM-scales to assess children’s emotional ratings of need of help depictions. Thus, I felt the urge to find out whether Kron and colleagues results could be replicated with the NeoHelp stimulus set.
Indeed, we did acquire essentially the same results: You can give me an assessment of how happy versus sad you find the picture above. You can also give me an estimate of your experienced arousal. But in the end, based on the intensity of your pleasant and unpleasant feelings, I could have inferred a lot about changes in your arousal ratings.
Paradoxically, however, you sometimes will experience pleasant and unpleasant feelings at the same time. And this phenomenon is something that gets obscured by simply asking you about happy versus sad feelings.