The Paradigm of Excitation Transfer

Jonah Lester
The Paradigm of Excitation Transfer

Carlos is playing a video game surrounded by friends. When he is in the final phase, he makes a mistake and loses the game in great frustration. One of his friends makes an innocent joke about it and Carlos gets angry and leaves the room slamming the door. Although the joke would not have elicited a similar response on another occasion, Carlos has transferred his excitement by making a disproportionate response. This is what happens in many of our daily behaviors that may seem irrational and that are explained through the paradigm of the transfer of arousal.


  • The development of Zillmann's investigations
  • What is the excitation transfer paradigm?
  • Zillmann tests his paradigm through different investigations
    • Conditions for the excitation transfer process
  • Applications of the excitation transfer paradigm
    • Links of interest

The development of Zillmann's investigations

In the late 1960s, the psychologist Dolf Zillmann of the University of Alabama proposed the paradigm of the transference by excitation, a theory that continued to develop over the following decades. This psychologist, a student of emotional reactions, was based on Clarck Hull's theory of impulse reduction and Stanley Schachter's theory of the two factors of emotion..

The first proposes that our biological impulses or needs are the basis and motivation of our behaviors, regardless of external stimulation..

On the other hand, the theory of the two factors of emotion affirms that emotions are produced both by physiological arousal or arousal, and by the cognitive evaluation of an event, that is: people feel a physical activation and evaluate this excitement according to the events that are happening to you, labeling the emotion according to these two observations.

Drawing on these theories and modifying them through his research, Zillmann tries to explain how arousal transfers from one situation to another..

What is the excitation transfer paradigm?

This theory proposes that the excitement that a certain event provokes in us is transferred to the responses that we emit before other subsequent events with the same intensity. That is, according to Zillmann, we transfer the excitement we feel from recent events to other events, although the latter may not have caused such arousal. Although we summarize it simply, this is a broad theory that explains behaviors that constantly go unnoticed on a day-to-day basis..

In Zillmann's words: "The residual excitement that leaves practically any emotional reaction is capable of intensifying any subsequent emotional reaction. The degree of intensification depends, of course, on the magnitude of the residuals prevailing at the moment." , or general physiological and psychological activation of the organism, is transmitted from one context to another causing responses, sometimes disproportionate.

This intensity in arousal can connect different emotions. This means that an excitement in which an emotion of fear underlies, for example, can give rise to a similar excitement in which there is an emotion of subsequent relief..

Zillmann tests his paradigm through different investigations

One of these investigations was carried out in 1971 and was based on showing films of different content to various participants. Movies could be erotic, violent, or neutral in content. Prior to this, an accomplice annoyed the participant. After viewing the movies, the participants could deliver shocks of varying intensity to the person who had disturbed them. As Zillmann expected, the participants who had viewed violent content carried out more intense downloads than those who had viewed neutral content and those who had received erotic content, much more than the previous ones..

Conditions for the excitation transfer process

For the excitation transfer process to be fulfilled, three specific conditions must be met:

  • The second event towards which we show excitement must occur when the excitement due to the first stimulus has not yet dissipated..
  • There must be an erroneous attribution of this excitement to the second event, that is, the person believes that his excitement is due to this new event without actually linking it to the first.
  • Before the second stimulus occurs, the person has not reached the threshold of full arousal.

Applications of the excitation transfer paradigm

This theory has been applied in different fields such as psychology or psychophysiology, but it has undoubtedly had a great effect in the area of ‚Äč‚Äčcommunication. In the 70s, just when the paradigm was beginning to develop, there was great concern about the high violent content that the audiovisual media spread. The arousal transfer paradigm was used to explain the behaviors of people whose reactions were influenced by these contents, despite the fact that at first this influence was denied due to the fiction of the arguments issued. The paradigm for the first time claimed that any stimulus, whether fictional or real, can cause a transfer of excitement. This has been used in many investigations especially focused on studying attacks that have been influenced by the media and propaganda.

Links of interest

  • Excitation-Transfer Theory.
  • Excitation-Transfer Theory.
  • Excitation transfer in communication-mediated aggressive behavior. Dolf Zillmann. 1971.

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