Where’s the feeling?

Where’s the feeling? Emotional response to violence in historical photos

Dr. Nakia Gordon, Assistant Professor

My lab, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, is engaged in a research project that developed out of conversations with two humanities professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It began when the art historian among us wondered aloud why her students appeared to be unaffected by images of the Abu Ghraib prison tortures. I suggested it was an empirical question whether they were truly unaffected or not.

My research interests in the neural underpinnings of emotion and emotion regulation led me to suspect the phenomenon she observed could have been the result of at least two factors. The first possibility was the students did have an emotional reaction, but chose not to report those emotions. The other possibility was that they very quickly engaged in emotion regulation strategies. Moreover, I suggested that with the proper neuroimaging technique we could “observe” those strategies.

As a first step, an undergraduate in the McNair Scholars program, helped develop the paradigm to determine which, if any, emotional responses participants had to these images. Participants identified the emotions they were feeling by rating at least 5 emotion adjectives (e.g. anger, disgust, cheerful, detached, and patriotic) on a scale of 0-10. They made these ratings before seeing any images and after viewing sets of violent images. Participants saw 3 sets of Abu Ghraib images, lynching images from Without Sanctuary, and generalized violence from the International Affective Pictures System (IAPS; Lang et al, 1996). Each set of images was shown for 20 seconds, with 5 images shown for 4 seconds each.

Our preliminary findings, presented at the Marquette University Diversity in Psychology Open House,  show us that the 20 participants, who mostly identified as white and were, on average, 19 years of age, felt less patriotism after viewing lynching and Abu Ghraib images relative to IAPS ones. They also felt more anger when viewing Abu Ghraib and lynching photos relative to IAPS. Finally, levels of disgust depended on whether the victims were the focal point of the image or whether onlookers were.

We conclude that images of violence invoke self-reported emotional responses. The responses are stronger for ethnic group victimization than generalized violence. Unfortunately, we have a small homogeneous sample and are unable to draw any conclusions about how ethnic identity may interact with these types of images. We are continuing to collect data so that we can answer questions related to emotion regulation. We also hope to illuminate how tolerance to these types of crimes comes to pass


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