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I’ve been working with interactive media for some time, and like many others in the field, I hold an assumption that the best forms of digital entertainment are those that give users control over how and when content is displayed. Interactivity, in fact, is the basic laws of the cyber landscape.

So I was a little surprised by a report out of Missouri University’s School of Journalism – one of the best journalism schools in the country – which found that for some people, interactivity creates a less than pleasant experience.

“There’s been an assumption that user control is a good thing,” said Kevin Wise, assistant professor of advertising at MU’s School of Journalism. “We wanted to test that assumption. What we found – contrary to the assumption – was that people actually paid more attention if they didn’t have control and, for the most part, rated those pictures as more arousing and pleasant.”

Here’s how the researchers described their study:

In one scenario, students controlled the onset of pictures with a computer mouse, and in the other scenario, pictures appeared without the students’ initiation. The students rated pictures they did not control more positively than pictures they did control. Students also showed cardiac orienting responses to pictures they didn’t control, but not to pictures they did control. A cardiac orienting response is a short-term heart rate deceleration that indicates something has captured a person’s attention.

Of course, these types of studies always raise an eyebrow simply because user-controlled media is dominating the landscape these days. Our own Wade Roush has written scores of stories about the Web 2.0 phenomenon, how audiences have changed from media consumers to media creators.

However, it’s good to remember that not everyone who comes to the Web is there for same reason – and that as media companies move forward with ever-more complicated tools for information retrieval, they should also create more traditional-oriented spaces for those people who only want to read and see what others have done.

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