Voluntary Pursuit of Negatively Valenced Stimuli From Childhood to Early Adulthood

Published Date: 
July 2, 2020


Although common sense suggests that we are motivated to pursue positive and avoid negative experiences, previous research shows that people regularly seek out negative experiences. In the current study, we characterized this tendency from childhood to young adulthood. Due to the known increases in risky behavior and sensation seeking in adolescence, we hypothesized that adolescents would show an increased engagement with negatively valenced stimuli compared to children and adults. Participants aged 4-25 (N=192) completed a behavioral task assessing motivation to engage with negative, positive, and neutral images. On each trial, participants viewed two small images and selected one to view at a larger size for up to 10s. Trials were organized into three valence conditions: negative versus positive images (matched on arousal), negative versus neutral images, and positive versus neutral images. Although participants chose positive images more than neutral or negative images, participants selected negative images frequently, even when given a positive (28% of trials) or neutral (42% of trials) alternative. Contrary to expectations, the tendency to choose negative images was highest in early childhood and decreased linearly with increasing age, and the tendency to choose positive images increased linearly with age. These results provide insight into how motivation to engage with emotional stimuli varies across age. It is possible that the novelty and rarity of negative experiences drives children to pursue these stimuli. Alternatively, children may find negative images less aversive, which would caution against assuming that these stimuli elicit the same motivational states in individuals of all ages.