Media consumers' moods play an important role in selections of media messages, as ample empirical evidence has shown. Based on mood management theory (Zillmann, 1988), many investigators have found affective states to influence which media content individuals attend to and which they avoid (for overviews, see Knobloch-Westerwick, 2006; Oliver, 2003; Zillmann, 2000). Experiments, quasi-experiments, field studies, and surveys have demonstrated in the United States and abroad that selections of electronic and broadcasting media such as TV entertainment genres, popular music, and Internet content in part result from the current feeling state of media consumers (e.g., Bryant & Zillmann, 1984; Knobloch, 2002; Knobloch & Zillmann, 2002; Zillmann, Hezel, & Medoff, 1980). Mood management considerations have been supported by amassed evidence but were also challenged by some observations. More specifically, both gender differences in hedonically motivated media selections and the exposure to upsetting, negative content cannot be explained with mood management theory. This study aims to address these challenges by building (a) on response style theory (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987, 1990), which conceptualizes gender differences in responses to dysphoric affects, and (b) on the mood adjustment approach (Knobloch, 2003), which offers explanations on why media users might sometimes be drawn to upsetting content. Hypotheses derived from these theoretical grounds will be tested with two data sets--a secondary data analysis of a mood management experiment and original data from a new mood adjustment study. The empirical investigation looks at selective music listening, although the same patterns are likely to apply to selections of other electronic and broadcasting media as well.
Mood Management Theory
Mood management theory (Zillmann, 1988) conceptualizes selections of media messages as motivated by affect optimization goals. Originally called the theory of affect-dependent stimulus arrangement (Zillmann & Bryant, 1985), its theoretical claims pertain to enhancement of both emotions and moods (see Zillmann, 2003, for the differentiation), although it became better known as mood management theory. This hedonistic objective is served by arousal regulation via media consumption to avoid boredom and stress, exposure to positively valenced content, and avoidance of messages that are associated with sources of negative affects. Thus, in states of stress, calming messages are preferred over stimulating messages to obtain agreeable arousal levels. On the other hand, bored individuals favor arousing messages according to the theory. Generally, messages with a tone that is more positive than the current affective state will be sought out, whereas any content with connections to origins of disagreeable feelings will be avoided.
As Zillmann (2000) noted, gender differences have emerged repeatedly in mood management investigations. In these cases, men failed to comply with mood management predictions, whereas women selected messages in line with the theory (see Biswas, Riffe, & Zillmann, 1994; Masters, Ford, & Arend, 1983; Medoff, 1982). For instance, Anderson, Collins, Schmitt, and Jacobvitz (1996) found in a field study that men and women differed in their TV choices when under stress: Stressed women watched more game shows and variety programs, whereas stressed men preferred violent action programs.
In light of psychological research on responses to one's own affects, gender-split patterns of media-based mood regulation are not surprising at all. In fact, gender has been referred to as the most important interindividual characteristic when it comes to mood regulation (Thayer, Newman, & McClain, 1994). Although the genders do not differ in terms of emotional experiences (e.g., Johnson & Schulman, 1988), ways in which men and women cope with stress (Tamres, Janicki, & Helgeson, 2002) or try to change bad moods (Thayer et al., 1994) have clearly been shown to diverge.
Response Style Theory
As Nolen-Hoeksema (1987, 1990) postulated in her response style theory, the overarching principle of these gender differences in affect regulation is that men tend to seek distraction to overcome a bad mood, whereas women tend to ruminate on bad moods. Ample evidence has corroborated this postulation (Butler & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1994; Nolen-Hoeksema, Morrow, & Fredrickson, 1993; Nolen-Hoeksema, Parker, & Larson, 1994; Thayer et al., 1994). Rumination "is defined as thoughts and behaviors that focus the individual's attention on the negative mood, the causes and consequences of this mood, and self-evaluations related to the mood" (Rusting & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1998, p. 790). Rumination, though, does not appear to be an effective mood-repair strategy because it leads to prolongation of the negative feeling state in both men and women, as experiments and field studies have shown (Ingram, 1990; Lyubomirsky & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1993, 1994; Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990; Nolen-Hoeksema & Morrow, 1991, 1993; Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1993; Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1994). These studies also showed that distraction, on the other hand, is an effective mood-enhancement strategy for both men and women in negative moods. "Distraction involves focusing attention away from the mood and its causes onto pleasant or neutral stimuli that are engaging enough to prevent the mind from wandering back to the source of negative affect" (Rusting & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1998, p. 790). The fact that women are more likely to ruminate when in dysphoric states could explain why they are twice as likely as men to be depressed (Ingram, Cruet, Johnson, & Wisnicki, 1988; Nolen-Hoeksema, Larson, & Grayson, 1999; Nolen-Hoeksema & Morrow, 1991; Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1994; Wood, Saltzberg, Neale, Stone, & Rachmiel, 1990). However, anger appears to be the exception to the rule that women ruminate and men distract themselves from negative affects. As Rusting and Nolen-Hoeksema (1998) showed, women tend to avoid feelings of anger with the aid of distraction, instead of focusing on the anger. These differences can be explained with gender-specific emotion socialization and emotion-related gender stereotypes--expressing anger is socially acceptable for men but not for women, whereas the display of sadness, fear, and most other emotions is more acceptable for women (see Brody & Hall, 1993; Fischer, 2004, for reviews).
Mood Management Research in Light of Response Style Theory
In light of the response style theory, it is surprising that mood management investigations have not encountered gender differences throughout in selective exposure to media stimuli. Although the key assumptions of mood management, as already cited, do not explicitly refer to rumination and distraction, Zillmann (1988) certainly endorsed these approaches as mood-impacting strategies while explaining the absorption potential as a stimulus characteristic with relevance for mood management: "Persons seeking to terminate their moods would do well to expose themselves to highly absorbing messages; persons who seek to maintain their states, in contrast, should minimize distractions and consume minimally absorbing fare--or better yet, nothing at all" (p. 331).
It is furthermore surprising that, in the case of gender differences, men instead of women tended to choose content that was likely to sustain their negative affects. According to response style theory, women should be avoiding distracting stimuli, whereas men should seek them out. The exception, again, should be anger, where these patterns should be reversed. Yet only some mood management investigations manipulated affects for hedonic differentiation, whereas others were interested in arousal management and thus induced states of boredom versus stress (e.g., Bryant & Zillmann, 1984). As response style theory does not lend itself to making predictions on arousal regulation, it is not puzzling from this perspective that mood management research did not reveal gender differences in selective exposure to calming and stimulating messages for bored versus stressed media users. For the studies that did examine effects of moods with different hedonic tones, the absorption potential (Zillmann, 1988) of media selections was not always clearly differentiated because the hedonic valence of the material was more of interest.
Zillmann et al. (1980), for example, placed participants in bad, neutral, and good moods by ostensibly testing their social skills and providing predetermined feedback that served as mood induction. Then, in a purportedly second study, respondents were free to sample from sitcom, action drama, or game show programs. The absorption potential of these choices may have been similar or at least ambiguous, thus it is plausible that no gender differences were reported. Likewise, choices of innocuous and hostile comedy in a study by Medoff (1982) may have provided similar absorption levels, but Medoff found that especially frustrated men favored hostile comedy, whereas provoked men abstained from media consumption altogether, probably to ruminate their anger. On the other hand, frustrated and provoked women apparently tried to dissipate their anger by watching positively valenced comedy. It seems that, in line with Rusting and Nolen-Hoeksema's (1998) findings reported earlier, women distracted themselves from anger by using material without "semantic affinity" (Zillmann, 1988, p. 332) to the source of their anger, whereas men ruminated their frustration and anger while watching material with high semantic affinity or even nothing at all.
A study by Biswas et al. (1994) used the same mood induction procedure as Zillmann et al. (1980) and had respondents then select from good and bad news, for which equal ratings for "interesting" had been established in a pretest. Thus the choices were probably equally distracting. Biswas et al. (1994) found that women in bad moods preferred good news...