It’s good to be grumpy: a bad mood makes us more detail-oriented, research shows

TUCSON, Arizona — 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 are particularly important to you. make angry. Sounds like a strange strategy, but fascinating new findings from the University of Arizona have shown that when we’re in a bad mood, we tend to identify literary or written inconsistencies more quickly.

These findings, which build on previous research into how the brain processes language, come from Vicky Lai, an assistant professor of psychology and cognitive sciences in Arizona. The research team originally intended to analyze and better understand how people’s brains respond to language when they are in a happy mood rather than a negative one.

“Mood and language seem to be supported by different brain networks. But we have one brain and the two are processed in the same brain, so there’s a lot of interaction going on,” says Prof. Lai in a university publication. “We show that when people are in a negative mood, they are more cautious and analytical. They investigate what is actually in a text and do not just fall back on their standard world knowledge.”

‘Mood matters’ when we perform tasks

The research team influenced the mood of test subjects by showing them clips from a sad movie (“Sophie’s Choice”) or a funny television show. (“Friends”). A digital survey was conducted measuring the mood of the participants both before and after watching the clips. The funny clips didn’t seem to affect the participants’ mood that much, but the sad clips did put the subjects in a worse state of mind.

Next, participants were tasked with listening to a series of emotionally neutral audio recordings consisting of four-sentence stories, each with a “critical sentence” that either supports or violates standard or known word knowledge. Each critical sentence was reproduced word for word on the subjects’ screens. While that was happening, the participants’ brain waves were monitored by EEG.

More specifically, the study authors showed participants a story about driving at night, which ended with the critical phrase “When the lights are on, you can see more.” Another stargazing story had a similar critical line that read, “When the lights are on, you can see less.” While that claim is indeed true when it comes to staring at the night sky, the common idea that turning on a set of lights results in less visibility is a much lesser-known concept that defies standard knowledge.

In addition, versions of the stories were also shown in which the critical sentences were swapped. Consequently, these revised statements did not fit the context of the story. So, for example, the story about driving at night would include the sentence “When the lights are on, you can see less.”

Next, the study authors examined how subjects’ brains responded to the inconsistencies, depending on their mood. This led to the discovery that when subjects were in a bad mood, they showed a variety of brain activity closely related to reanalysis. “We’re showing that mood matters, and we may need to pay attention to our mood when performing certain tasks,” 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 grumpy sometimes

All subjects completed the experiment twice; once in the negative mood condition and once in the happy mood condition. The 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 the sad mood being the more analytic mood,” notes Prof. Lai.

The actual research for this project was conducted in the Netherlands, which means that the subjects were Dutch speakers. Still, Prof. Lai argues that these findings translate across a broad spectrum of languages ​​and cultures.

It’s important to note that this study only included women. prof. Lai and her colleagues wanted to align their study with existing literature that used only female participants. Future studies should also include men. In the meantime, however, Prof. Lai and her colleagues believe that mood can affect us in many more ways than previously thought.

“When thinking about how mood affects them, many people just think of things like being grumpy, eating more ice cream, or – at best – interpreting someone else’s conversation in a biased way,” concludes co-author Jos van Berkum. from The Netherlands. University of Utrecht. “But there is much more going on, also in unexpected corners of our heads. That’s really interesting. Imagine your laptop being more or less accurate as a function of battery level – that’s unthinkable. But in human information processing, and presumably also in (information processing) of related species, something similar seems to be going on.”

The study is published in Limits in communication.

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