How Emotions Shape Our Compensatory Control in the Face of Threat, Uncertainty, and Information Void?


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date2 Dec 2021


These could easily be the most challenging and emotional years after the World Wars. The anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong and the COVID-19 pandemic, both erupted in 2019, presented super-threats in a local and a global context. The intensely emotional social environment, featuring uncontrollability and unpredictability, nurtures a full bunch of defense and compensatory control behaviors. People endorse conspiracy theories (CTs), establish trust, and take actions to prevent contracting the coronavirus. Human beings are evolving to adapt and establish a “new normal,” and through these behaviors, we attempt to replenish the long-challenged sense of control and certainty, even in an illusory or palliative sense. Some are beneficial responses from the view of public health, while others could be detrimental and maladaptive.

Threat-compensation, uncertainty, and control literature is aggregating knowledge to illustrate and postulate the human response to structure-disrupting and agency-depriving threats. Theories have postulated the role of anger, fear, and anxiety, the emotions widely embodied in the threatening environment's appraisal, in the subsequent information processing and behavior. Considering the appraisal and action tendencies of these emotions and their relationships with the three emotional-motivational systems posited in the reinforcement sensitivity theory (RST), namely the behavioral approach system (BAS), the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), and the fight/flight/freezing system (FFFS), I further examined the role of these emotions on CT endorsement and other compensatory control strategies. I also set out to examine the moderating effect of the personality traits related to the sensitivity of the three emotional-motivational systems or RST traits. The mediating effect of perceived uncertainty and control and the role of context relevance were also considered. The context of the social movement in Hong Kong in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic provided us with unique opportunities to examine these linkages naturally.

This dissertation comprises four studies. All studies adopted the autobiographical recall method in inducing the target emotions. Participants were recruited conveniently in Study 1 and via an online data collection platform Prolific in Study 2 to 4. They were randomly assigned to one of the emotion induction groups. Study 1 examined the effect of anxiety and anger on CT endorsement in the context of the social movement in Hong Kong in 2019. Study 2 to 4 investigated the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. I examined the relationship of anger, fear, and anxiety with various compensatory control strategies, including the CT endorsement related to COVID-19 in Study 2, pandemic behavior and vaccination intention in Study 3, and trust in information sources in Study 4.

Across the four studies, I found intriguing and inspiring interactions between emotions and RST traits in predicting the preference of compensatory control and defense strategies. In Study 1, the result revealed the retributive action tendency of anger and the plausible function of anger ventilation of CT endorsement in an emotionally tense context of the anti-extradition protest in 2019 in Hong Kong. Context relevance of the CT attracted higher endorsement than its irrelevant counterparts. In Study 2, although no direct effect of emotion was found, the results revealed moderations of BAS and BIS in the direct and indirect effects of emotion on CT endorsement. In Study 3, no direct effect of emotion was found, while a conditional direct effect of anxiety was found in individuals with low BIS on the pandemic behavior outcomes. The effect of emotion was not mediated through perceived uncertainty or control on pandemic behavior outcomes. In Study 4, I found lowered trust in unofficial information sources in fear condition, as well as a stronger conditional effect of fear through perceived uncertainty on trust in unofficial information sources. Hampered trust in authoritative information sources was also revealed under anger induction in high trait FFFS person. In the attempt of replicating the result of Study 2 and 3, I found the main effect of anxiety and the conditional indirect effect of fear through perceived uncertainty in predicting increased CT endorsement.

The result of the current studies casts new theoretical light on the interaction of emotion and RST traits that govern the preference of defense strategies. RST traits do not merely amplify the relevant action or appraisal tendency of the emotions but also playing a particular role in shaping the compensatory control strategies. BIS and BAS were more related to palliative defense behaviors, while FFFS seemed to be more to do with the tendency of action behaviors. Practically, the findings of the current study have implications in health policy making and health communication amidst the uncertain and emotional social environment. More attentions have to be paid to the emotion in the contextual background and be aware of the dispositional differences in terms of the sensitivity of environmental stimuli.

    Research areas

  • Emotions, Control, Conspiracy Theory, COVID-19