continued from Part I
Manipulating The Protective Functions Of The Frame
Last week, Laura Freberg offered an interesting discussion of why some people like to watch horror movies. She cited the research done by Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen who ask “How can the hedonistic assumption (i.e., people’s willingness to pursue pleasure and avoid pain) be reconciled with people choosing to expose themselves to experiences known to elicit negative feelings?" Although the authors are not clinicians, their research is germane to appreciating that clinical framework management is required if the patient is to go forward with a thorough exploration of highly disturbing unconscious perceptions and meanings of his or her internal experience.
Andrade and Cohen argued that a growing body of evidence indicates that people can experience both positive and negative feelings simultaneously. To lay persons, this might seem like an assumption that should have never been in doubt, but many psychologists, biologists and economists have assumed that positive and negative feelings cannot coexist simultaneously. Moreover, it was long assumed by many that we always seek pleasurable experiences while avoiding painful ones.
To explain behaviors that appear to contradict the hedonistic hypothesis, its defenders often argued that when we accept painful experiences, we do so in a rational manner, deferring present reward for some greater future reward. For example, people might attend a horror movie because they so enjoy the relief subsequent to the fear. With a few exceptions outside of psychoanalysis, the idea that pain and pleasure, fear and exhilaration could simultaneously coexist as part of a more complex inner experience was not widely accepted by experts who assumed we operate as relatively rational hedonists.
In a series of studies involving viewers of horror movies, Andrade and Cohen found strong evidence that negative and positive feelings can be co-activated. They also note that some individuals are attracted to watching horror movies while others consistently avoid them. They argued that the latter group avoids horror movies because they are unable to co-activate positive and negative feelings within the context of viewing these movies.
To explain the difference between the two groups, Andrade and Cohen proposed that an internal “protective frame” makes co-activation of negative and positive feelings possible, leading some individuals to find the viewing of horror movies attractive:
Finally, we propose a moderator that may be necessary for co-occurrence to be a stable state and that is likely to affect repeated pursuit of “aversive pleasures” such as horror movies as well as truly dangerous activities. To this purpose we adopt the notion of a protective frame (Apter 1982, 1992) and directly manipulate this perceived frame of mind to show that individuals can learn how to experience positive feelings while still being absorbed by the fearfulness of the event.
In examing their results, Andrade and Cohen found some support for the notion that the “co-activation” of positive and negative feelings does require the presence of a protective frame – a modulating sense of safety that allows the film viewer to simultaneously experience conflicting negative and positive feelings. Andrade and Cohen were also able to manipulate the film viewing framework such that individuals who did not already possess an internal modulating frame could be provided this frame through external manipulation.
In psychotherapy, we can think of a similarly protective therapeutic framework as a backdrop that allows the patient to pursue negatively charged thoughts and fantasies rather than retreating from such an exploration. If the frame in the therapeutic space is, indeed, functionally similar to the frame in Andrade and Cohen’s research with horror movie viewers, then thoughtful management of a protective therapeutic frame would seem essential to the therapeutic exploration of those aspects of inner experience that are chronically avoided.