As people gain expertise in a subject, they may find themselves becoming more emotionally numb to it, according to a new study of movie, beer and wine reviews and four supporting experiments that has implications for advertisers and aspiring film buffs.
The researchers behind the study analyzed the emotionality of language used by amateur and professional critics in film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. They also tracked reviewers on BeerAdvocate and CellarTracker as the writers wrote more reviews and, presumably, gained expertise in beer and wine.
According to the study, published in the Journal OF Consumer Research March 15, experts used less emotional language, even after controlling for factors such as word count, professional language and the normative amount of emotion sparked by a particular pilsner.
Across the four experiments and three field studies, each category of “experts” consistently scored around 10% lower than amateurs on emotionality, lead author Matthew Rocklage told The Academic Times.
“I feel like we’ve all experienced that occasion where we’ve done something for a while and we’re pretty good at it, we think we might even have some expertise in it, and yet it doesn’t seem to have that same thrill that it once had,” said Rocklage, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
He wondered whether that was supported empirically, but he couldn’t find anything in psychology literature answering this question.
The study looked at over 3 million Rotten Tomatoes reviews of 8,627 films, written by 642,681 amateurs and 5,780 professional critics. Checking the reviews against a scored emotional lexicon, the researchers measured the valence, extremity and emotionality that reviewers expressed.
Likewise, among the 33,163 individual beer reviewers and 38,447 wine reviewers, the researchers found that for each additional beverage a person reviewed, they got less emotional.
They buttressed the Rotten Tomatoes and beverage portions of the study with four experiments.
In one of the experiments, 102 participants recruited on Amazon Mechanical Turk were shown a different random 10-photo subset of 20 photos. They were given a checklist with 42 adjectives from the lexicon and told to choose two to four adjectives that best fit their response to each photo, and from those choices, to choose the word that best fit their reaction.
The adjectives had a range of positivity and negativity scores, and a range of emotionality scores, with positive words like “amazing” ranking as more emotional and “superior” ranking as less emotional. At the end, the participants were asked to rate their expertise in photography.
The more expertise a person had, the less emotion they expressed about the photos.
In that experiment, the researchers also controlled for boredom, acknowledging the possibility that a self- proclaimed expert might be less emotional because they weren’t interested. “Yes, people are still less emotional even when we assess and control for the possibility that they’re just becoming bored,” Rocklage said.
In another experiment, 601 participants saw six random photos from a database, then chose two to four adjectives from a checklist to describe their reactions to each photo. A random half of participants then took a photography learning module while the other half took a wine module. After the modules, the participants looked at six new random photos, evaluated each one with the checklist and then reported how much they had applied their knowledge of photography.
The people who took the photography module who also said they had used their knowledge of photography scored about 6.10 on the emotional scale before the module; after the module, their score dropped to 6. When people took a wine module or took the photo module but said they did not apply their knowledge, there was no real difference in their emotional response. The most expert participants scored 5.95, while the least expert scored much higher — 6.17.
In another experiment, the researchers found, notably, that when they explicitly prompted experts to think about their “feelings” rather than just their “reaction,” the experts’ language became more emotional again. So there is hope, he said, for the craft beer enthusiast who drones on endlessly about sours — he does not have to live a joyless life.
Rocklage himself, however, may be beyond hope. His own numbness stems from an obsessive high school dedication to competitive drumline. “I think I was in four competitive drumlines at the same time,” he said, practicing four hours a day. “To this day,” he said, “I still can’t even think about doing drums in any way.”
The study, “Emotionally Numb: Expertise Dulls Consumer Experience, ” published in the Journal OF Consumer Research March 15, was authored by Matthew D. Rocklage, University of Massachusetts, Boston; and Derek D. Rucker and Loran F. Nordgren, North western University.