Bad moods can have unappreciated mental upsides
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Thomas Jefferson defended the right to pursue happiness in the Declaration of Independence. But that’s so 237 years ago. Many modern societies champion everyone’s right to be happy pretty much all the time.
Good luck with that, says psychologist Joseph Forgas of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. A lack of close friends, unfulfilled financial dreams and other harsh realities leave many people feeling lonely and forlorn a lot of the time. But there’s a mental and social upside to occasional downers that often goes unappreciated.
“Bad moods are seen in our happiness-focused culture as representing a problem, but we need to be aware that temporary, mild negative feelings have important benefits,”
Growing evidence suggests that gloomy moods improve key types of thinking and behavior, Forgas asserts in a new review paper aptly titled “Don’t worry, be sad!” For good evolutionary reasons, positive and negative moods subtly recruit thinking styles suited to either benign or troubling situations, he says. Each way of dealing with current circumstances generally works well, if imperfectly.
New and recent studies described by Forgas in the June Current Directions in Psychological Science illustrate some of the ways in which periods of sadness spontaneously recruit a detail-oriented, analytical thinking style. Morose moods have evolved as early-warning signs of problematic or dangerous situations that demand close attention, these reports suggest.
One investigation found that people in sad moods have an advantage remembering the details of unusual incidents that they have witnessed. And a little gloominess could help job applicants; lousy moods cut down on the tendency to stereotype others, thus boosting the accuracy of first impressions. People in sad moods also show a greater willingness to work on demanding tasks, communicate more persuasively and are more concerned with being fair to others than are peers in neutral or happy moods.
Alternatively, good moods trigger a loose mode of thought conducive to creativity and seeing the big picture. Happiness signals that a situation is safe, or at least not immediately threatening, Forgas suggests. As a result, people in a cheery state have the luxury of focusing on themselves rather than on their environments.
Whether good or bad, moods are relatively low-intensity, background feelings that can last for anywhere from a few minutes to the whole day. A person may feel somewhat good or bad, happy or sad, without knowing why or even being aware of such moods. Sad moods fall far short of clinical depression’s constant feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. But moods linger much longer than emotions, which typically flare up and burn out fairly quickly. In contrast to a mood, joy, anger and disgust feel intense and are experienced as having definite causes.
Feelings as information
Like Forgas, psychologist Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor sees mental value in sadness. “It’s shallow and untrue to assume that positive feelings can only have positive consequences and negative feelings can only have negative consequences,” he says.
When Schwarz was a graduate student in the late 1970s, an influential line of research held that happy moods make people more likely to remember positive events and sad moods more often revive memories of negative events. That account of how feelings influence thought seemed incomplete to the aspiring psychologist. On “good” days, he reasoned, everything just felt right without any past triumphs coming to mind. On “bad” days, life felt lousy in the moment, without any tragic memories returning for an encore.
Schwarz launched a series of studies indicating that people use low-intensity moods as a source of information when forming judgments. Good and bad moods are usually experienced as being about whatever problem or situation a person currently faces, he and his colleagues found. Treating moods in this way often works out, as when a supervisor recommends someone for a raise based on feeling good about that person’s recent job performance. Feelings can mislead if, say, a boss feels happy because it’s a sunny Friday and thus approves a raise for someone who pleads for a salary hike but doesn’t deserve it.
By 1990, Schwarz and his colleagues had conducted a few studies suggesting that positive and negative moods spontaneously shape how people think. Sad moods fostered attention to details, they discovered, whereas happy moods promoted playfulness and creativity. More work was needed, though, to confirm those results and explore their implications for making decisions in various situations.
Individuals aren’t slaves to their moods, Schwarz cautions. A sad person can think outside the box if necessary, say, to solve problems at work. And a happy person can accurately fill out tax forms or complete other detail-heavy tasks.
Evidence from many labs supports Schwarz’s view that moods inform people’s judgments, often advantageously and outside of awareness, psychologist Rainer Greifeneder of the University of Basel in Switzerland and his colleagues reported in the May 2011 Personality and Social Psychology Review.
Moods provide surprisingly keen insights into one’s environment, the team concluded. Provocative support for that idea appeared in the October 2012 Journal of Consumer Research. A team led by business professor Michel Tuan Pham of Columbia University in New York City found that volunteers who trusted their feelings did better at predicting events such as how the stock market would perform in the next week and how upcoming movies would fare at the box office than volunteers who mistrusted their feelings.
By embracing their moods, superior forecasters gained unconscious access to a vast amount of learned information that informed their predictions, Pham speculated.
“In natural situations, feelings provide mostly valid information about whether there is a problem or not and how to respond to current tasks,” Schwarz says.
Power of sad
Many emotion theorists now agree that negative moods direct attention to tasks at hand and promote analytical thinking, whereas positive moods broaden attention and prompt original thinking. Researchers in a field dubbed “positive psychology” have put a lot of recent focus on exploring how happiness profits mind and body.
Forgas sees no need for a special field of research to study “negative psychology.” He would settle for “more awareness that negative feelings are so common and widespread that they must have adaptive functions.” Reports of specific ways in which sadness benefits thinking are beginning to accumulate.
Consider memory. In the January 2009 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Forgas and his colleagues found that shoppers in a suburban store remembered more details about what they saw in the store when they reported being in bad moods on rainy, cold days than when they felt happy on sunny, warm days.
Sad moods also improve eyewitness memory, apparently by lowering the tendency to incorporate false and misleading details into accounts of what was observed. In a 2005 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, college students witnessed a staged altercation between a lecturer and a woman who angrily interrupted the talk.
One week later, while in happy or sad moods induced by watching emotional film clips, participants read questions about the incident that included misleading information. Those in sad moods remembered what had happened much more accurately than their happy peers, Forgas and his colleagues reported. Fewer pieces of false information twisted the memories of sad students.
Sad moods can also make first impressions of others more reliable, Forgas says. People often judge those that they meet for the first time by assuming that obvious but often irrelevant traits, such as physical attractiveness, reflect intelligence, agreeableness and other as yet unknown traits. Psychologists refer to this much-studied phenomenon as the halo effect.
Negative moods topple the halo effect off its cockeyed perch, Forgas reported in the December 2011 European Journal of Social Psychology. After reminiscing about happy, sad or neutral personal experiences, volunteers read a one-page philosophical essay. Forgas attached a photograph of the writer to each copy of the essay, showing either a casually dressed young woman or a middle-aged man wearing a suit and glasses.
Happy participants rated the essay far more positively when they thought it was written by the academic-looking man. This halo effect largely disappeared among sad participants. Those in a neutral mood preferred the man’s essay, but not to the extent that happy volunteers did.
Sad folks took longer to read and rate the essays than happy and neutral participants did. That’s probably because feeling sad fostered a more careful appraisal of essays and photos, Forgas suggests. As a result, he proposes, sad volunteers largely rejected the stereotype of philosophers as tweedy, professorial men, helping to minimize the halo effect.
Sadness also confers some surprising social benefits. “While a positive mood may increase self-focus and selfishness, a negative mood can increase concern for others and the quality of communication,” Forgas says.
J. Forgas. Don’t worry, be sad! On the cognitive, motivational and interpersonal benefits of negative mood. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 22, June 2013, p. 225. doi:10.1177/0963721412474458.
J. Huntsinger. Does emotion directly tune the scope of attention? Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 22, August 2013, p. 265. doi:10.1177/0963721413480364.
N. Schwartz. Feelings-as-information theory. In P. Van Lange et al., editors. Handbook of theories of social psychology. Sage, 2011.
A. Koch et al. Can negative mood improve your conversation? Affective influences on conforming to Grice’s communication norms. European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 43, August 2013, p. 326. doi:10.1002/ejsp.1950.
J. Forgas. She just doesn’t look like a philosopher…? Affective influences on the halo effect in impression formation. European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 41, December 2011, p. 812. doi:10.1002/ejsp.842.
J. Forgas and H. Tan. To give or to keep? Affective influences on selfishness and fairness in computer-mediated interactions in the dictator game and the ultimatum game. Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 29, January 2013, p. 64. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.07.017.
J. Lerner et al. The financial costs of sadness. Psychological Science. Vol. 24, January 2013, p. 72. doi:10.1177/0956797612450302.
B. Bower. Sometimes, happiness is for bozos. Science News Online, February 2, 2011.
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