sealPurdue News

February 1999

Purdue study finds physical jitters give away fear

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Who's afraid? Check your pulse before you say.

In a study of reactions to a scary movie, Purdue University communication researchers found that some people will tell you that they were not frightened, but physical measures indicate otherwise. Communication Professor Glenn Sparks says the people who reported some of the lowest levels of fear may have been the most frightened.

Those persons most likely to give a conflicting report are what researchers call "repressive copers." They repress negative emotions as a way of dealing with unpleasant circumstances.

In the study, 59 students were individually shown segments of the suspense movie "When a Stranger Calls." Their physical arousal was recorded at specific intervals by body sensors monitored by a computer. Afterwards, students were asked to rate their fear on a scale of 0 to 9. Previous psychological tests indicated that 30 of the students were repressors, and 29 were non-repressors.

The study revealed that repressors were likely to rate their level of fear during the film as low, but the physical measures for them were 2 to 3 times greater than those of non-repressors.

"It could be that because they successfully repress emotions, these persons are not aware of their true reactions," Sparks says. "It's also possible that repressors are aware of their negative emotional reactions but simply choose to deny them to others."

Although this study looked at young adults, Sparks says some children may use the same coping method. He says parents often are advised to talk with their children about frightening situations on television or in movies. "If a child uses the repressive coping style, then just talking to him might not reveal his true emotional reaction," Sparks says.

Sparks suggests that if children view suspenseful programs and movies, then parents should watch with them and gauge their children's fear based on physical reactions. "If the child says he's fine, but looks scared, then you probably ought to find something else for him to watch," he says.

The study has been accepted for publication in the journal Communication Research.

CONTACT: Sparks, (765) 494-3316; e-mail,

Compiled by Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the study "The Repressive Coping Style and Fright Reactions to Mass Media" is available from Glenn Sparks at (765) 494-3316, e-mail,

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