It’s good to be grumpy: A bad mood makes us more detail-oriented, study showsThank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
TUCSON, AZ – The next time you need to proofread a sensitive document or a friend asks you to review an important email for them, it might be a good idea to think about a few things in life that make you particularly angry. It sounds like a strange strategy, but fascinating new findings from the University of Arizona have found that when we’re in a bad mood, we actually tend to identify literary or written inconsistencies more quickly.
These findings, which build on previous research examining how the brain processes language, come from Vicki Lai, an assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science at Arizona State University. The research team initially set out to analyze and better understand how people’s brains respond to language when they are in a happy mood, as opposed to when they are in a negative mood.
“The mood and language appear to be supported by different brain networks. But we have one brain and both are processed in the same brain, so there is a lot of interaction,” says Prof Lai in university edition. “We show that when people are in a negative mood, they are more attentive and analytical. They scrutinize what a text actually says and don’t just fall back on their default knowledge of the world.”
“Mood matters” when we perform tasks
The research team influenced subjects’ moods by showing them clips from a sad movie (“Sophie’s Choice”) or funny tv show. (“Friends”). A digital survey was given measuring participants’ moods before and after watching the clips. The funny clips didn’t seem to affect the participants’ mood much, but the sad clips put the subjects in a worse state of mind.
Participants were then instructed to listen to a series of emotionally neutral audio recordings consisting of four-sentence stories, each containing a “critical sentence” supporting or violating default or familiar knowledge of the word. Each critical sentence was displayed on the subjects’ screens one word at a time. Meanwhile, while this was happening, the participants’ brain waves were monitored via EEG.
A more specific example: The study authors showed participants a story focused on driving at night that ended with the critical sentence, “With the lights on, you can see more.” Another story focused on stargazing had a similar critical sentence that read “With the lights on, you can see less.” While this statement is indeed accurate when it comes to gazing at the night sky, the common belief that turning on an array of lights results in less visibility is a much lesser-known concept that defies default knowledge.
In addition, versions of the stories in which the critical sentences were exchanged were also shown. Therefore, these revised statements do not fit the context of the story. So, for example, a story about driving at night would include the sentence “With the lights on, you see less.”
The study authors then examined how the subjects’ brains responded to the inconsistencies, depending on their moods. This led to the discovery that when subjects were in a bad mood, they showed different brain activities closely related to reanalysis. “We’re showing that mood matters, and maybe when we’re doing some tasks, we should.” pay attention to our mood”, adds Prof. Lai. “If we’re in a bad mood, maybe we should do things that are more detail-oriented, like proofreading.”
It’s good to be angry sometimes
All subjects completed the experiment twice; once in a negative mood state and once in a happy mood state. Trials took place one week apart and the same stories were presented each time.
“These are the same stories, but in different moods, the brain sees them differently, with a sad mood being the more analytical mood,” notes Prof Lai.
The actual research for this project was conducted in the Netherlands, meaning that the participants were native Dutch speakers. However, Prof Lai argues that these findings carry over a wide range a range of languages and cultures.
It is important to mention that this study included only women. Prof. Lai and her colleagues wanted to bring their research into line with the existing literature, which used only female participants. Future studies should also include men. Meanwhile, however, Prof. Lai and her colleagues believe that mood can affect us in many more ways than previously thought.
“When thinking about how their mood affects them, many people simply consider things like being grumpy, eating more ice cream or – at best – biasing someone else’s talk,” concludes study co-author Jos van Berkum. from Netherlands Utrecht University. “But there is much more going on, also in unexpected corners of our minds. This is really interesting. Imagine your laptop being more or less accurate depending on the battery level – it’s unthinkable. But in human information processing, and probably in the (information processing) of related species, something similar seems to be happening.
The study was published in Limits in communication.
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