Cognition Colored by Emotion

Emotions can sometimes act as a kind of “sixth sense,” steering us toward certain behaviors, decisions, and judgments. Perhaps no one is more familiar with these emotional phenomena than affective science pioneer Gerald L. Clore, recipient of the APS William James Fellow Award and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. According to APS Board Member Lisa Feldman Barrett, Clore’s work is “marked by originality and creative experimental observations paired with innovative theoretical ideas.” Clore has not only influenced our understanding of psychology, but also expanded the scope of computer science, where his theory appears as the emotion modules for robots, games, and tutoring programs.

Clore discussed how emotions color our cognitive styles in his award address at the 25th APS Annual Convention in Washington, DC. He believes that the unconscious aspects of emotions make us, in many ways, “strangers to ourselves.” But this does not mean these subconscious processes are out of reach. Rather, everyday feelings provide information about them, and their impact can be seen in experiments on judgment, decision making, and problem solving.

Emotional Assessments

Researchers have long been vexed by how emotions color cognitive processes, especially when it comes to explaining our own judgments and thoughts.

Clore described one classic experiment in which participants were asked to rate their life satisfaction in a telephone interview. On sunny days in early spring, participants tended to say they were happy and fulfilled, whereas on cold and rainy days just the opposite was true; overall, they were basing their life satisfaction on their momentary feelings. But when participants were reminded of the weather outside before being asked about their life satisfaction, the effect disappeared altogether: On average, participants from both sunny and rainy groups then reported equal life satisfaction. According to Clore, the diagnostic value of those feelings (either positive on a sunny day or negative on a rainy day) changed when participants focused on the actual source of their feelings when experiencing them.

Researchers have also been able to manipulate emotions in the lab and study their effects on cognitive processes. In another experiment, participants were asked to judge the morality of actions in several morally questionable scenarios. In some cases, participants read these “morality vignettes” in a disgusting room — one with used pizza boxes strewn about, pencils with bite marks, and a mysterious sticky substance on the desk. Others read the scenarios in a pristine environment. Compared with their clean-room counterparts, participants in the disgusting room were particularly likely to deem usually acceptable acts as immoral. These results, Clore noted, were consistent with the idea that “intuition and emotion are the driving forces of moral judgment, and that reasoning about morality comes later.”

In addition to his decision-making and moral judgment tasks, Clore has found that emotions can alter our perceptions and interpretations of the physical world. Previous work from other laboratories has revealed that, while wearing a heavy backpack or after strenuous exercise, people tend to see hills as steeper than they actually are.

Clore wondered whether emotions could produce similar results. After listening to either happy or sad music, participants were asked to estimate the steepness of a hill. Those who listened to Mahler — the prototypical “sad” music — rated the hill as significantly steeper than those who listened to Mozart. As Clore pointed out, the effect of sadness was equal to that of wearing a heavy backpack while assessing the incline.

These effects aren’t limited to sadness and happiness. He also found that at the top of a steep hill, participants overestimated the incline when standing on a wobbling skateboard more than when standing on a similarly shaped but stable wooden box: When feeling fear, participants judged the hill as steeper.

The Effect of Feeling on Thinking

Researchers are now beginning to understand that the link between emotion and cognition is a malleable one. According to Clore, emotions don’t deliver a one-size-fits-all effect on cognition. Instead, the impact of positive and negative affect is guided by whatever cognitions and inclinations are accessible at the time. Positive moods tend to enhance accessible cognitive processes, whereas negative moods tend to shut them down.

Participants who are induced to feel mildly happy — by writing about a time when they were happy, for instance — tend to think more globally and categorically, whereas people who are told to write about a sad time in their lives tend to focus on local details. This effect seems to hold up in a variety of circumstances.

But Clore says that the reason a happy mood elicits a global focus may be that people generally adopt a global focus anyway, and perhaps a happy mood simply tends to promote whatever response is most accessible. As a test, he reversed which focus was most accessible by having participants focus first on the details of a task. Then, on a second task, he found that being happy boosted that primed, detailed focus instead of leading to a global focus. Under those conditions, it was feeling sad rather than feeling happy that led to global thinking. This finding led Clore to revise the standard model of how affect influences thinking: Instead of a fixed effect, positive affect seems to be a “go” signal, and negative affect seems to be a “stop” signal for whatever inclination is currently accessible. As his experiment showed, changing what is most accessible alters the usual impact of affect.

By this reasoning, positive and negative affect could influence a myriad of other situations, such as stereotypical thinking. Clore described an experiment in which people’s stereotyping was uncovered in a reaction time test. For most people, a positive mood increased stereotypical thinking — it boosted the already accessible mindset. Similarly, a negative mood reduced their stereotypical thinking.

But the researchers also tested chronic egalitarians — people who show little to no intergroup biases. For these people, a happy mood didn’t produce the increase in stereotyping — the “go” signal from being in a happy mood instead boosted their egalitarianism. For these participants, a sad mood made them more likely to show bias by reducing their accessible inclination to be egalitarian.

This “stop/go” effect also seems to work at the cultural level, with positive moods boosting ingrained cultural mindsets and negative moods reducing them. When participants were asked to pick out the most important factors relating to a murder story, feeling sad led Koreans — whose readily accessible mindset is more holistic than Americans’ — to become more analytic rather than holistic. The idea is that sadness acted as a “stop” signal for their culturally normative tendency to think holistically about the murder case.  By the same logic, a sad mood led the usually more analytic American participants to become more holistic. The sad mood essentially said “stop” to their inclination to look for a single cause of the murder.

Clore believes this research adds nuance to our understanding of affective psychology: “The implied explanation we had is probably wrong. It is not the case that there is a distinct link between a particular affective state and a particular cognitive style. Affect works more like reward and punishment: Reward is not dedicated to any particular response, but influences whatever response it follows. The same appears to be true with positive and negative affect.”

As such, this field of research could have significant implications for therapies used to treat emotional disorders or disorganized thinking. One goal of psychotherapy, for instance, involves trying to turn moods into emotions. Finding an object for a negative mood turns it into an emotion — a necessary step for problem-focused coping.

“Coming to see emotions as objects of our own perception rather than a lens through which we see the world can be quite constructive,” Clore explained. “Emotional intelligence is about being psychologically minded about your own emotional reactions.”

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