This is my summary of: Valins, S., 1966. Cognitive effects of false heart-rate feedback. Journal of personality and social psychology, 4(4), pp.400–8. In it Valins describes the context, procedure and results of a psychological experiment designed to investigate the effects of false autonomic feedback on subjects experience of emotional content.Valins sets his study in relation to theories that describe internal events (autonomic activity) as internal cues for the generation of feelings, which ultimately lead to emotional behavior, once “attributed to an emotional stimulus or situation”(p400). In this picture physiological activity forms the basis for emotional episodes, because it can act as cues for cognitive processes. He argues that nonveridical cognitive representations of internal events are possible and should lead to the same reactions as veridical ones, provided the current situation allows them to be interpreted in an emotional way — i.e. no actual physiological activity is required to cause emotional experience. He conducts an experiment to empirically evaluate his assumption.
Valins’ experimental setting consisted of tasking subjects to rate 10 slides of “seminude females” (p400) according to their attractiveness. All stimuli are described as highly attractive (but no prior rating to establish a baseline for ratings has been conducted, unless one considers their origin from Playboy magazine as such a selection). Throughout the procedure a sound was played, which was explained to one half of the population as being a representation of their actual heart-rate, while the same sounds were described as random background noise to the other half. The audio track was designed in such a way that it would increase or decrease the heart rate-feedback in relation to half the slides shown, thus giving subjects the impression that their pulse changed in response to the pictures. Measurements of attractiveness consisted of rating scales and a post-experiment selection process, in which subjects were able to select their five favorite pictures to take them home. Additionally, several weeks after the initial experiments had been conducted a follow-up visit was made by another experimenter, letting targets rate the same stimuli in order to identify the long-term effects of the experiment on subjects preferences.
The results of the study describe how subjects attributed levels of attractiveness varied in response to the bogus-feedback, and chosen pictures corresponded with the ones that had been reinforced through the feedback — even several weeks after the original experiment. Noticeable, Valins points out that the effect is greater for increasing the perceived heart rate than for decreasing it. Moreover, subjects are reported to have altered the cause of their attributions, in case they were not believing the changes in heart rate to be plausibly related to their liking of a particular slide. This leads Valins to describe that subjects generally try to bring a sense of harmony between the feedback and their own judgments of attractiveness: They correct their conscious interpretation of and judgements to match “what their ‘subconscious’ knew all the time” (p407). He sees this as the explanation of the experiments long-term effects on participants evaluations of the stimuli.
The knowledge of what the false feedback represents is an important aspect: Heart rate feedback must be accepted by subjects as representing their internal reactions, in order for the effect to manifest. Valins found that in the control condition — where the sound was not associated with subjects’ heart rate — the changes in frequency had no significant impact. Based on that, he argues that it is the feedback’s meaning having the impact, not some actual autonomic activity caused by hearing the sounds themselves. He further bases this view through referring to follow-up research in which physiological measurements (GSR and HR) had been taken. Here results showed subjects in both conditions to have reacted physiologically alike, leading Valins to conclude that “bogus feedback appears to mask veridical feedback by diverting the subjects attention from his actual internal reactions”(p407).
Please note that this summary represents my own interpretation of the original article, and as such might leave out important aspects or even contain errors. It does not attempt to replace reading the original article in any way and is primarily intended as a memory aid for myself.