What types of content create peak experience?

Apr 8, 2022  |  7 min
More mature than a scribble, but not yet what digital gardener Maggie Appleton calls an “evergreen” idea. A note may have taken a fair amount of time to develop. I think the idea has merit.
(See digital gardening.)
 |  Peak aesthetic experiences Story Writing Book Neuroscience

Summary: Moving stories often feature a common set of characteristics, among them resonance with values, relationship change, prosocial actions, and moments of mixed valence.

I’m doing research for a book about story. I’m posting summaries of my notes as I go. This forces me to “learn in public.”

In this post, I continue exploring the research on peak aesthetic experiences.

This post is a part of a series:

  1. Definitions: what are peak aesthetic experiences?
  2. Investment and peak experience
  3. What types of content create peak experience?
  4. Expectation, the knowledge instinct, and peak experience
  5. Optimal difference and peak experience
  6. Incongruity and peak experience
  7. Priming, callbacks, and peak experience
  8. Intensity and peak experience
  9. Peak experience and the breakthrough moment
  10. The physiology of peak experiences
  11. Peak experiences and reward
  12. The subjective awareness of peak experience

What causes peak aesthetic experiences? In an earlier post, I talked about what I labeled “investment,” the audience’s connection to the characters and themes in a story.

In this post, I’ll talk about four key aspects of story content, which contribute to peak aesthetic experiences:

  • Resonance with values
  • Relationship change
  • Prosocial actions
  • Mixed valence

Resonance with values

Our values are our ethical and moral center. They determine how we assign importance, how we define something as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and how we appraise ourselves and others.

In the previous post, I talked about how stories that meaningfully hook into our core values affect us more deeply than those that don’t. We’re more deeply invested in these stories, and thus they affect us more powerfully.

But, when it comes to peak aesthetic experiences, it’s a particular subset of values that have the most impact.

Menninghaus et al. suggest that, based on their surveys, peak aesthetic experiences have a “fairly circumscribed focus on prosocial norms and self-ideals.” They are, “limited to affiliative types of social bonding, [which] range from feelings of attachment to family and friends to similar feelings towards larger and more abstract social entities, such as one’s country or social and religious communities.” (Menninghaus)

In other words, the most significant values are those connected to relationships. A

Relationship change

There’s a strong thread in the research suggesting that observing (and, perhaps, vicariously experiencing) social interactions is one of the main elicitors of peak aesthetic emotions.

For example, In a 2017 experiment, Wassiliwizky et al. asked twenty five participants to provide examples of movie scenes that had moved them to tears in the past. Out of the resulting one hundred and thirty-seven clips, nearly 94% focused on social interactions. And, when they identified the genres of the movies from which these clips came, more than 94% of them were from genres that could be categorized as social (Drama 39%, Romance 19%, Comedy 8%, Biography 5%). (Wassiliwizky)

In Menninghaus et al.’s 2015 interview of more than two hundred students, the majority of participants chose to report “moving” events that were “significant relationship events and critical life events (especially death, birth, marriage, separation, and reunion).” (Menninghaus)

In 2016, Schoeller and Perlovsky interviewed sixty students, asking them to describe scenes in films, books, or plays, which gave them chills. They found that, again, relationships and, especially, changes in relationships were significant.

“Chill-eliciting scenes usually involve radical changes in the relations among characters; e.g., separation through death or reunion after strong and demanding efforts.” (Emphasis theirs.) (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

This dynamic element appears to be important. It’s not enough for a story to simply be about relationships or social interactions. Those relationships must have some significant moment of change.

Prosocial actions

Bring the two things together — social relationships and resonance with values and beliefs — and we get a synthesis: selfless action on behalf of others.

Wassiliwizky et al. and Menninghaus et al. both confirm that depictions of prosocial behavior factored significantly in their study results. B (Menninghaus) (Wassiliwizky)

“We found that displays of prosocial behavior play a crucial role in the elicitation of tears and goosebumps.” (Wassiliwizky)

Especially important in this mix is self-denial. (Schoeller and Perlovsky) (Wassiliwizky) When characters choose willingly to perform acts on behalf of others, at significant cost to themselves, it’s deeply moving.

“Chills are . . . experienced when characters are no longer acting for their own sake but for a cause greater than themselves . . . when the values driving a given action are stronger than the likelihood for this action being successful.” (Schoeller and Perlovsky)

In story, the power of these moments of selflessness often comes by combining values with a change in the relationships between characters.

For example, think of Mr. Darcy’s second proposal to Elizabeth in the climax of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Darcy demonstrates altruism (values, self-denial) by expressing willingness to be denied. He is no longer caring only about his own desires; now, he cares about hers as well. In so doing, he demonstrates his change of heart toward Elizabeth (relationship change) who then is able to show how she has changed as well and receive him.

Mixed valence

The last of our four content elements, which contributes to peak aesthetic experiences, is valence.

Valence is a term used in the literature to talk about positive and negative feeling.

The evidence seems to suggest that mixed valence — experiencing both positive and negative feelings at the same time — is important for “being moved.”

For example, Menninghaus et al. found that “Both the sad and the joyful variants of being moved showed a coactivation of positive and negative affect.” (Menninghaus)

In other words, moving events that were sad had a happy component to them, and moving events that were happy were tinged with sadness.

Wassiliwizky et al. similarly suggest that “the mixture of a predominant emotional component, for example, sadness, with its emotional antidote is an essential requirement for states of being moved to occur.” (Wassiliwizky) (Emphasis mine.)

Mori and Iwanaga found that their study was consistent with similar conclusions from a meta-analysis of mixed emotions. In their results, chills were present with “simultaneous pleasure, happiness, and sadness.” (Mori and Iwanaga)

What do these mixed valence events look like? Wassiliwizky et al. elaborate:

“In a farewell scenario, for instance, the predominant emotion of sadness is mixed with positive feelings of social bonding . . . Conversely . . . the predominant building block of joy — elicited, for instance, in a reunion scene — is balanced by a negative antidote, that is, reactivated feelings of the preceding painful separation.” (Wassiliwizky)

Or, take Menninghaus et al.’s example:

“Funerals, while deeply sad, also commemorate and honor the deceased person; moreover, they revitalize social and affective bonds among the survivors. Similarly, a reunion after a long separation, while deeply joyful, can also bring up reminiscences of the uncertainties and feelings of separation experienced in the meantime.” (Menninghaus)

Wassiliwizky and Menninghaus are coauthors, so it’s not surprising that they would use reunions here as a common example. It’s a good one, though, and may be suggestive for stoytellers.

Perhaps part of the success of good story climaxes and resolutions is that they evoke mixed feelings by the contrast developed between the negative situation created by the central story conflict and the positive situation created by its satisfying resolution.

This could be just as true for “tragic” stories as for those with happy endings. Even if the protagonist makes choices that ultimately lead to their defeat and punishment, if the audience views that ending as satisfying (perhaps inline with their values), it can be experienced as a positive resolution to the negative tension created by the story’s conflict.


In sum, there appear to be a handful of elements in the content of stories that can elicit peak emotional responses. Among them are a resonance with the audience’s core values; moments of significant change in character relationships; demonstrations of self-sacrificial, prosocial behavior; and a mixture of both positive and negative feelings.

Admittedly, this list isn’t particularly ground-breaking. These four elements, or some subset of them, are common to almost all stories. But, it’s nice to have a storyteller’s intuition backed and grounded by the research.

These also aren’t a checklist, silver bullet, or recipe to follow blindly. Simply including these elements doesn’t guarrantee that an audience will experience peak aesthetic emotion. There’s still a lot to be said for the individual craft and specific execution of the storyteller.

But these things are good to keep in mind as you think about crafting stories. With which values does your theme and character actions resonate? Which relationships change, and how do they change? Do your characters act on behalf of others in significant moments of change, at a cost to themselves? Are moments of triumph tinged with loss or moments of resolution tinted with the conflict that came before?

Onward . . .

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