The Subjective Consequences of Experiencing Random Events

  •  Jason Hubbard    
  •  Tanaz Molapour    
  •  Ezequiel Morsella    


In everyday life, one’s experience is usually highly structured, coherent, and predictable, a regularity stemming from the many constraints (e.g., cultural and physical constraints) operating upon the natural and social worlds. Consider that events that are experienced in an office meeting are usually not experienced in the great outdoors, and vice versa. This predictability of the outside world is capitalized upon by the brain, which is highly prospective and incessantly extracts meaningful patterns from event sequences. Despite these considerations, to our knowledge there have been no investigations into the ways that the brain copes with experiences that violate this structured regularity. Here we demonstrate a novel paradigm designed to tax this prospective system (by presenting the brain with a rapid series of random events) and show that such exposure reliably induces negative affect. Participants are exposed to Rapid, Random Semantic Activation (RRSA) prior to completing a mood scale; compared to a mood baseline, RRSA yields a consistent pattern of negative affect. This pattern did not emerge in a control group that completed a task with identical stimuli. While previous research has focused on randomness in terms of humans’ ability to produce and detect random sequences, our paradigm explores this issue as it relates to human experience. Our findings are consistent with the idea that, due to the prospective nature of the brain and one’s “epistemic needs” (Kruglanski, 1980), gross violations in the regularity of experience produce some form of negative subjective experience.

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