Two Flavors of Relief

Whether you just miss getting struck by a car or click the Send button for the final revision of a journal article, the feeling you have is the same — it’s relief. Yet even though this feeling is very common, scientists know relatively little about it. Attempting to deconstruct this sensation, Kate Sweeny at the University of California, Riverside, and Kathleen D. Vohs from the University of Minnesota, investigated how individuals experienced relief in different contexts.

In this Psychological Science study, adult volunteers were asked to recall an experience of personal relief. The participants who recalled a dodge-the-bullet type experience were more likely to fixate on how the outcome could have been worse, while individuals who recalled relief after finishing a task were more likely to focus on how the outcome might have been better.

In a separate experiment, participants were told they would have to sing the song “Feelings” by Morris Albert in front of research staff. In some cases, the participants sang the song (task-completion condition), and in others they were told the microphone was broken so they wouldn’t have to sing (near-miss condition). Participants in the near-miss condition were more likely to imagine what might have been and experience social isolation than were those in the task-completion condition, supporting the idea that relief can be identified in a laboratory setting.

No matter how you experience relief, the authors believe the positive sensation associated with it help people to push forward when they are facing difficult situations. But trying to remember that feeling when your data analysis spits out an insignificant p value can be hard.

Observer Vol.25, No.5 May/June, 2012

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