There’s a childish prank I never tire of. As soon as we’ve left the house and the front-door has slammed shut, I pat down all my pockets and say nervously to my companion “Er, you’ve got the keys, right?”. Then, just when their dismay at the prospect of being locked out has peaked, I say “Only joking!” and watch with pleasure as relief washes over them.
I say “relief”, but what exactly is that emotion my companion has just experienced? As Kate Sweeny and Kathleen Vohs write in a new journal article, “Although relief is readily identified and frequently experienced, it is not understood well from the perspective of psychological science.” Investigations into the emotion, they observe, “are sparse”.
Now Sweeny and Vohs have attempted to make a start at mapping out this uncharted emotional territory. They began with a pilot study asking 91 people to provide a personal example of relief. Roughly half the group described a “near-miss” kind of relief – rather like fearing that you’ve locked yourself out and then realising that you haven’t. The other half described a kind of “task-completion” relief, in which a negative experience had come to an end. A second pilot study with dozens of American and Dutch participants established similarly that half their relief experiences in the preceding week were of the “near-miss” category and half were of the “task completion” kind.
Next, in a study in which 114 more participants reflected on recent relief experiences, the researchers found that near-miss relief was associated with having more thoughts about how much worse things could have been and feeling more socially isolated (regardless of whether they were on their own or not). Sweeny and Vohs said this is consistent with past research showing how excessive rumination can be harmful to close relationships. Experience of task-completion relief, by contrast, was associated with more thoughts about how things could have been even better.
Lastly the researchers had a go at inducing relief. They invited 79 participants to a lab and told them they’d have to sing a song into an audio recorder. Half the participants were then told the recorder was broken, thus prompting them to experience near-miss relief. The other half of the participants did the singing, which it was presumed would be followed by the experience of task-completion relief. Quizzed afterwards, it was again found that near-miss relief, more than task-completion relief, was associated with feelings of social isolation and thoughts about how things could have been worse. The negative counterfactual thinking mediated the social isolation – that is, the more thoughts about how bad things could have been, the more socially isolated people felt.
What does all this tell us about what relief is for? “Experiencing near-miss relief could increase the likelihood that people will act to avert an unfavourable fate in the future” Sweeny and Vohs said. “In contrast, task-completion relief allows people to focus on the positive emotional experience with minimal distraction from downward counterfactual thoughts. This process might reinforce satisfaction in the completion of a job well done … and therefore increase the likelihood that people will repeat the unpleasant experience.”
“Our aim is to bring the neglect of relief to an end,” the researchers’ concluded, “for it is an emotion that deserves study.”
Sweeny, K., and Vohs, K. (2012). On Near Misses and Completed Tasks: The Nature of Relief. Psychological Science, 23 (5), 464-468 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611434590