Is Horror an Emotion? An Empirical Dissociation of Horror from Fear, Disgust, and Awe

Taylor, P.M. (Kyoto University), Uchida, Y. (Kyoto University)

Personal tragedies and social catastrophes elicit intense emotions that affect subsequent behavioural responses and psychological (mal)adaptation to life-changing experiences. While the psychological sequelae of catastrophe have been investigated (e.g., PTSD, post-traumatic growth), the immediate emotional experience of sudden, unimaginable harm has remained largely unexplored. To explore the emotional experience of tragedy and catastrophe, we investigated the emotional components of “natural horror”, i.e., an emotional shock elicited by real-life, schema-incongruent harm or damage (not the “aesthetic horror” of cinematic fiction). Across four studies, we compared the emotional components (e.g., elicitor qualia, appraisal patterns, action tendencies) of horror with those of fear and moral disgust (which are semantically adjacent to horror; Cowen & Keltner, 2018), as well as awe (which shares with horror the distinguishing features of a) elicitation by schema incongruence and b) elicitation of a “need for cognitive accommodation”; Taylor & Uchida, in press; Keltner & Haidt, 2003) to examine how horror is dissociable from all three. Aspects of affective overlap between horror and these emotions, as well as a proposed evolutionary function for natural horror, will also be discussed.


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Conflict and Morality