The Excitation Transfer Paradigm

Do you know this theory?
The excitation transfer paradigm

It’s the 92nd minute of the match. There is 1 minute left before the referee gives the final whistle. FC Bacelone wins by 1 goal to 0 against Real Madrid. A Barcelona player tries to prevent another member of the Madrid team from entering the area and he falls. The referee whistles the penalty and the Barça players start yelling at the referee. Some seem to get angry. A player from the Catalan squad berates another Madrid player and he blows up. The referee draws two red cards and several yellow cards. What’s going on ? All are victims of the excitation transfer paradigm.

It is common to find oneself in situations in which a person reacts disproportionately to a seemingly harmless stimulus. On many occasions we have received rather unpleasant responses from someone we love about a comment we made. However, neither the comment nor the intention was intended to harm the other. In addition, this type of event tends to occur more often at the end of the day. Why is this happening?

The excitation transfer paradigm: what is it?

Dolf Zillmann  developed the paradigm of excitation transfer the theory of arousal asked by Stanley Schachter. For this author, arousal is equivalent to physiological activation. Although this is a much larger theory, this brief description is enough to understand Zillmann’s paradigm.

According to Zillmann, physiological activation does not abruptly disappear when the conditions that caused it end. It takes a long time to wear off because the hormonal processes that keep it going are slow. That is, if a person has experienced physiological activation in context A and soon finds themselves in context B and this causes an emotion in them, this second activation will be added to that generated by context A.  This is what we call the residual excitation, that is, the degree of activation that we drag from one context to another. 

physiological activation and excitation transfer

Wrong attribution

When we drag the excitement from context A to context B, we tend to wrongly attribute the total excitement only to context B.  Let’s take an example. Our working day is a nightmare and at the last minute our supervisor gives us a new assignment. Even if we have time to finish it, our reaction could be overwhelmingly angry. We then attribute all our anger to this last mission.

If we had received this mission earlier in the morning, the consequences would not be the same, and physiological activation would not take place. Or maybe it does, depending on how we wake up and how we get to work. So, the excitement transfer paradigm may or may not be applicable, depending on how our day is going.

Therefore, before responding to an angry person , it is best to let a few minutes pass and try to relax as much as possible.

Zillmann’s experiment on the excitation transfer paradigm

In 1971,  Zillmann conducted an experiment on the effect of watching movies with emotional content on aggressive behavior. He differentiated three different stages:

  • ?? At the start of the session, an accomplice angered the participant.
  • ?? Then, the participants were shown a film with violent, erotic or neutral content.
  • In the final stage, the participant was given the opportunity to administer variable-intensity shocks to the accomplice.

Zillmann expected those who had seen erotic and aggressive films to give their “enemy” more intense shocks than those who had seen the neutral films. The results showed that participants who watched the film with violent content administered more intense shocks than those who watched the film with neutral content.  And after watching the erotic film, they administered more intense shocks than after the aggressive film.

Based on the Zillmann theory, the research team of Scott C. Bunce conducted in 1993 an investigation into the transfer of excitement. Among the main results, it was found that extroverts reacted worse to unpleasant stimuli. The reason, according to the authors, is that those who score higher on this personality trait seem to have fewer negative experiences around them. They should therefore do more to process information about unpleasant experiences.

excitement and anger transfer

Final conclusions

Research on the excitation transfer paradigm has shown that activation changes are not properly attributed to the actual events that trigger them.  Some subjects seem to think that their activation is caused by the situation in which they find themselves and not by previous situations.

The majority of the results also suggest that reactions and actions are not based on the close relationship between perceived arousal and its causal antecedent. This effect highlights the relevance of physiological arousal in the modulation of emotional intensity, as well as confirms the idea that it is undifferentiated and nonspecific.


I no longer get angry: I observe, I reflect and I walk away if necessary
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