Mood and Attentiveness

In Jonah Lehrer’s article about the benefits of depression, nothing seemed solid until I came across this:

[Joe] Forgas [an Australian psychology professor] placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To [vary] mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s “Requiem” — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.

I found the scientific article that reports this experiment, in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Memory for the trinkets was measured two ways — recall and recognition — and both ways the “sad” shoppers did much better. I didn’t know about this; the size of the effect suggests it’s important. Calling it variation in “memory” is odd, since the remembered event was only a minute ago. Variation in attentiveness is a better summary.

Whatever you call it, I like the general point made in the scientific article. When you are in a good mood, you pay less attention to your surroundings than when you are in a bad mood. When you’re in a good mood, the model of the world in your head is working well. No need to change it. When you’re in a bad mood, the model of the world in your head isn’t working well. Time to gather more data and revise it.

My colleagues and I have studied a different effect along these lines (in rats): When things aren’t going well, you vary your actions more. You try new things more. That’s another way to update your model of the world.

9 Replies to “Mood and Attentiveness”

  1. Sometime ago I practiced Tibetan Buddhism and read Chogyam Trungpa—an interesting monk by any measure. I could be off since I’m working with memory, but I recall in one of his books I read he was stressing not only attentiveness—no surprise there—but also how important it was to feel melancholy as a way of life. As if melancholy were the only emotion underlying a present and attentive life.

  2. The question that came to my mind was this- Did the happier, more upbeat people focus more on the other people (cashier) than the items around the checkout, and did the melancholy shoppers focus more on the items and less on the cashier?

  3. yes, karky, that’s a good question. This is the sort of result that I’d like to see repeated under lab conditions where the two conditions (sad and happy) are more equal. I looked around for such evidence but couldn’t find it.

  4. Depressed people certainly are better at some things than non depressed (never depressed) people-such as processing negatively weighted words The trouble is the things they tend to be better at may not help them. Better recall for negative events but worse recall for postive ones and less accurate and exegeratted recall for their own physical ailments

    Interesting post thanks, Mark

  5. “This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.”

    Obvious implications for the benefit of meditation, here. Putting aside a little bit of time to very pointedly not solve any problems.

    If concentrating on a problem is depressing, the drive to concentrate on solving problems might be implicated in depression. Or the depression itself might only be coincidental, happiness might compete with problem-solving for resources. Happy people might be better at problem solving because they have more of these competed-for resources.

  6. One general finding of emotion researchers is that inducing positive mood, by having the experimenter tap the subject on the shoulder and smile, or offer cookies, or various other manipulations, results in a greater range of more creative associations to words, so at least the imagination is opened up.

    I don’t know how the “trinket” finding fits into the overall research. I’m a writer who is very depressive — the one word people use repeatedly to describe my published writing is “thoughtful,” for whatever that is worth… Depression can make you question the point of doing anything; it can paralyze motivation, which in turn may free your attention…

Comments are closed.