Having Control Might Be Good, but It’s Not Interesting

Study Found That Established Psychological Theories about Control Don’t Apply to Interactive Media

By Katherine Kostiuk
MU News Bureau

Columbia, Mo. (July 7, 2006) — Having control is better than not having control, psychological research shows. When people don’t have control, they feel uncertain, worried and nervous. However, a recent University of Missouri-Columbia study found that these concepts don’t apply to interactive media like the Internet. The study discovered that people respond more positively to images if they don’t have control over when the picture is displayed.

Kevin Wise
Kevin Wise

“There’s been an assumption that user control is a good thing,” said Kevin Wise, assistant professor of advertising at MU’s School of Journalism. “We wanted to test that assumption. What we found – contrary to the assumption – was that people actually paid more attention if they didn’t have control and, for the most part, rated those pictures as more arousing and pleasant.”

Wise and Byron Reeves, professor of mass communication at Stanford University, examined the physiological and emotional responses of 22 undergraduate students who viewed pictures on a computer. In one scenario, students controlled the onset of pictures with a computer mouse, and in the other scenario, pictures appeared without the students’ initiation. The students rated pictures they did not control more positively than pictures they did control. Students also showed cardiac orienting responses to pictures they didn’t control, but not to pictures they did control. A cardiac orienting response is a short-term heart rate deceleration that indicates something has captured a person’s attention.

“The orienting response is hardwired into our systems,” Wise said. “If you go back to the caveman, you’ll see that it makes sense. If you’re out hunting or looking for a mate, orienting is a natural response to novel stimuli. You need to pay attention to novelty in the environment to determine: is this thing going to kill me, or can it help me? With interactive media, you want to have control, but at the same time, always knowing what comes next eliminates the novelty.”

When people control the onset of an image, the element of surprise is eliminated, and they don’t need to orient to the picture. Wise believes that most people want to have control over what they see, but they also enjoy the surprise of seeing something unexpected. Some Internet sites are trying to make the most of this by incorporating unexpected video and sound clips into their sites.

“Pop-up ads are one example, although maybe they’re not a positive one,” Wise said. “Hearing a sound clip or seeing a video when you log onto a band’s Web site is another example. These are some ways people are reintroducing novelty into user-controlled media.”

The study, part of Wise’s dissertation while a doctoral student at Stanford, has been accepted for publication in the journal Media Psychology.

Updated: April 10, 2020

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