"I Feel Like a Different Person"

Thursday, March 12, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Who hasn’t spoken those words at one time or another? Usually when our mood lifts dramatically—following an illness or personal travail, for whatever reason—we feel not just upbeat but fundamentally different. We have a “new outlook on life.”

But what exactly is changing during these transformative emotional experiences? And what does it say about who we are? Does our thinking change? Our personality? Core values? We think of our identity as something stable and enduring, but how much of our “self” is subject to the vagaries of our moods?

Scientists have long been interested in the interplay of emotions and identity, and some have recently zeroed in on cultural identity. One’s heritage would seem to be especially stable and impervious to change, simply because it’s been passed down through generation after generation and is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche. But how deeply, exactly?

Psychologist Claire Ashton-James of the University of British Columbia decided to explore this intriguing question in the laboratory, to see if even something as potent as culture might be tied to normal mood swings. She recruited international students hailing from Germany, Ireland, England, Taiwan, Korea, China and Japan for a series of experiments. European cultures are known to value independence and individuality, whereas Asian cultures prize community and harmony. This fundamental East-West cultural difference is well established, and so offered Ashton-James an ideal test.

She guessed that people in an upbeat mood would be more exploratory and daring in attitude—and therefore more apt to break from cultural stereotype. That is, Asians would act more independent than usual, and Europeans would act more communitarian. Dispirited people of all cultures would be more cautious—and stick closer to cultural expectations.

She had to fool around with people’s moods to test this idea, and she did this in a variety of ingenious ways. In one study, for example, she played some upbeat Mozart on the stereo to lift the volunteers moods, or some Rachmaninov to bring them down. In another study she had the volunteers hold pens in their mouths: Some held the pen with their teeth, which basically forces the face into a smile, which improves mood. Others held the pen with their lips, forcing a frown. The idea here was to unconsciously raise or lower mood.

Then she gave all the volunteers a variety of tests, each designed to measure the strength of their values—either self-reliance on the one hand, or community harmony on the other. In one test, for example, she offered the volunteers a choice of five pens, four blue and one red. In keeping with cultural values, Asians typically pick from the more common blue pens in this test—to be part of the group—while Westerners usually take the one red pen. Or she asked them to think about the question “Who am I?”—and list 20 answers, much like the parlor game circulating on Facebook. She analyzed the content of all the lists to see if they reflected predominantly individualistic or predominantly group values.

No matter how she manipulated mood, and no matter how she measured cultural values, she always got the same result: Feeling good did indeed encourage the volunteers—both European and Asian—to explore values that are inconsistent with their cultural norms. And elevated mood even shaped behavior, allowing volunteers to act “out of character.” Feeling bad did the opposite: It reinforced traditional cultural stereotypes and constrained both Western and Eastern thinking about the world.
These findings, published in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science, suggest that emotions may serve an important social purpose. Positive feelings may send a signal that it’s safe to broaden one’s view of the world—and to explore novel notions of one’s self. Negative feelings may do the opposite: They may send a signal that it’s time to circle the wagons and stick with the “tried and true.” But the findings also suggest that the “self” may not be as robust and static as we like to believe. Indeed the self may be dynamic, constructed again and again from one’s situation, heritage and mood.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” blog at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman. Excerpts from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at www.sciam.com.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:23 PM


At 10:36 PM , Blogger Greg said...

"Indeed the self may be dynamic, constructed again and again from one’s situation, heritage and mood."

Beautiful summation, Wray, and it accords perfectly with my own intuitive sense of self and how it constantly re-orients and reconstructs itself.