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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Marret K. Noordewier

23.09.2019, by Tina Keil in grant report

Leiden University, The Netherlands; In collaboration with Małgorzata A. Gocłowska, University of Bath, UK; Project: Understanding Knowledge Emotions

Marret Noordewier and Małgorzata A. Gocłowska
Marret Noordewier and Małgorzata A. Gocłowska

Knowledge emotions inform people about the state of their environment (Keltner & Shiota, 2003; Silvia, 2010). When a situation is unexpected, novel, complex, or in another way not known or understood, people can experience surprise, awe, curiosity, interest, or confusion (D’Mello & Graesser, 2012; Keltner & Haidt, 2003; Litman, 2005; Loewenstein, 1994; Noordewier & Van Dijk, 2019; Silvia, 2010). Contrary, when a situation lacks stimulation people experience boredom (Bench & Lench, 2013; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2011). Most research to-date studied knowledge emotions in isolation rather than together. As a result, not much is known about what various knowledge emotions have in common and how they differ from one another. To remedy this issue the current project aimed to identify commonalities and differences between knowledge emotions (for a similar approach regarding positive emotions, see Campos, Shiota, Keltner, Gonzaga, & Goetz, 2012).

By studying knowledge emotions together and identifying their various components we can create a framework for understanding those emotions. Such a framework can help to predict what constellations of elicitors and subjective experiences lead to the arising of various emotions. For example, it could help to predict when a novel event will lead to greater confusion and when it will lead to greater interest. Moreover, a framework like this will also provide a starting point for studying knowledge emotions in combination with each other, to develop a better understanding when and how one knowledge emotion turns into another (e.g., when and how initial confusion turns into sustained interest).

Based on a review of the literature on surprise, awe, curiosity, interest, confusion, and boredom, we developed exploratory predictions for each knowledge emotion in terms of key elicitors, subjective experience components, and action tendencies. We then conducted two studies: Study 1 (N = 451) provided a first test of the exploratory predictions and Study 2 (N = 420) was a preregistered replication of Study 1.

In both studies participants recalled an event in which they experienced surprise, awe, curiosity, interest, confusion, or boredom (between subjects). Participants described the event in as much details as possible, including what caused it and how it felt (following Campos et al., 2012). After the recall task participants rated what elicited the experience (elicitors), how they perceived this experience (subjective experience), and what they wanted to do during or  as a result of the event (action tendencies). Specifically, as elicitors, we measured the novelty and complexity of the event, the amount of information that was available, and whether the event (dis)confirmed and/or exceeded their expectancies. As subj ective experience we measured valence, arousal, coping potential, the extent to which participants’ ongoing thoughts or activities were interrupted, whether the situation consumed their attention, and whether they felt small relative to their environment. Finally, as action tendencies, we measured the extent to which they wanted to explore or know more about the situation and whether they want to avoid or withdraw from the situation.

We then compared the ratings of these components for each emotion to the overall mean of the emotions together. Based on the results found in both studies, each emotion can be described in terms of unique and overlapping high and low scores. For example, in terms of elicitors, curiosity and confusion are both the result of having too little information, but confusion is uniquely associated with high complexity. Boredom is uniquely associated with having too much information, low complexity, and confirmed expectancies. Awe and surprise are both elicited by exceeded expectancies, and surprise and confusion also occur in the context of disconfirmed expectancies. In terms of subj ective experience components and action tendencies, we see that the positive knowledge emotions are awe, surprise, and interest. Together with curiosity, these emotions are also arousing and linked to low avoidance motivation. Awe and interest are related to high coping potential, but surprise and curiosity are not. Only curiosity and interest result in high motivation to know more. Awe is unique in that it consumes attention and together with confusion and boredom, it also makes people feel relatively small. The negative knowledge emotions are confusion and boredom, which both score low in terms of arousal and coping potential and high in terms of avoidance motivation. Confusion is uniquely associated with interruption, while boredom scores low on interruption as well as motivation to know more.

We are grateful to the support from the EASP, which made it possible to conduct these fairly elaborate studies. Describing knowledge emotions in terms of what they share and how they are different offers an important starting point for future studies in which we plan to systematically vary these components to develop an integrative understanding of when and why the different knowledge emotion arise and how they change over time. This is not only relevant for theorizing on knowledge emotions and related fields such as learning and decision-making, but it can also have more applied connections to for instance innovation, creativity, and change.


  • Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3, 459–472.
  • Campos, B., Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., Gonzaga, G. C., & Goetz, J. L. (2013). What is shared, what is different? Core relational themes and expressive displays of eight positive emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 27, 37–52.
  • D'Mello, S. K., & Graesser, A. (2012). Dynamics of affective states during complex learning. Learning and Instruction, 45–57.
  • Keltner, D., & Shiota, M. N. (2003). New displays and new emotions: A commentary on Rozin and Cohen (2003). Emotion, 3, 86–91.
  • Litman, J. A. (2005). Curiosity and the pleasure of learning: Wanting and liking new information. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 793–814.
  • Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 75–98.
  • Noordewier, M. K., & van Dijk, E. (2019). Surprise: Unfolding of expressions. Cognition and Emotion, 33, 915–930. 
  • Silvia, P. J. (2010). Confusion and interest: The role of knowledge emotions in aesthetic experience. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4, 75-80.
  • Van Tilburg, W. A., & Igou, E. R. (2012). On boredom: Lack of challenge and meaning as distinct boredom experiences. Motivation and Emotion, 36, 181–194.