Category: Thought

Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism

Two woman holding their hands in summer sunny dayBy Christian Jarrett

Psychologists have become very interested in the causes and consequences of our beliefs about free will.  For instance, many consider that progress in neuroscience is likely to undermine our belief in free will (though this has been challenged). And in terms of consequences, less belief in free will has been shown to affect our own behaviour and judgments, for example increasing our tendency to cheat, and making us more lenient towards other people’s criminal culpability.

One unexplored issue is how experiencing deep, romantic love is likely to affect our belief in free will – or indeed vice versa. A new series of online studies in Consciousness and Cognition has made a start, looking at whether thinking about a more passionate versus less passionate relationship is linked with a greater or lesser belief in free will and, separately, stronger or lesser belief in determinism (the idea that the future is pre-determined and beyond our control). The answer, it turns out, is both. Thinking about a more intense passionate love affairs tends to go hand in hand with stronger beliefs in free will and stronger beliefs in determinism.  Continue reading “Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism”

Contra Kahneman, your mind’s fast and intuitive “System One” is capable of logic

Numbers of the MindBy Christian Jarrett

Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s international best-selling book is titled Thinking Fast and Slow in reference to the idea that we have two mental systems, one that makes fast, automatic decisions based on intuition, and a second that is slower, deliberate and logical. A further detail of this “dual processing theory” is that given time, and if we make the effort, the second system can step in and correct the intuitive illogical reasoning of the trigger-happy first system.

It’s an elegantly simple model supported by a huge number of studies, but it’s far from perfect. As demonstrated by a new paper in Cognition, it seems that contrary to Kahneman’s caricature of the mind, our intuitive System One is perfectly capable of logic, without the need for any help from System Two. Moreover, it’s actually rather rare for System Two to step in and overrule System One; more common is for System One to find the logical answer all by itself.  Continue reading “Contra Kahneman, your mind’s fast and intuitive “System One” is capable of logic”

If you do everything you can to avoid plot spoilers, you’re probably a thinker

It’s a vexing First World Problem – how to avoid people giving away, on Twitter or at the water cooler, the events of the latest Game of Thrones episode before you’ve caught it. Psychologists are beginning to study this modern scourge, albeit in the context of written stories rather than TV shows, but so far their findings have been contradictory – one study suggested that spoiled stories were actually more enjoyable (possibly because they’re easier to process), while a later investigation found the precise opposite. Now a research team led by Judith Rosenbaum has entered the fray with a study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture that suggests one reason for the contradictory results is that the effects of spoilers depend on how much a person likes to engage their brain, and how much they enjoy emotional stimulation.

In psychological jargon these traits are known as “need for cognition” and “need for affect”, respectively. The former is measured through disagreement with statements like “I only think as hard as I have to” and the latter via agreement with statements such as “Emotions help people get along in life”.

Figure from Rosenbaum et al 2016

The researchers first presented over 350 students, mostly African Americans at a university in Southeastern USA, with several previews of classic short stories, some of which contained plot spoilers and some that didn’t, and then asked them to say which of the stories they’d like to read. The students also completed measures of their need for cognition and affect, and the critical finding was that those who scored low on “need for cognition” tended to say they would prefer to read the full versions of stories that were previewed with plot spoilers. “When choosing between stories, low need for cognition individuals appear to have found spoiled stories as potentially more comprehensible and more in keeping with their preferred level of cognitive processing”, the researchers said.

Next, the students read some classic short stories (such as Two Were Left and Death of a Clerk) in full, some of which had been “spoiled” by a preview, and some not, and then rated their enjoyment of the stories. This time, “need for cognition” was unrelated to enjoyment, but “need for affect” was, in that people with a greater desire for emotional stimulation got more pleasure from unspoiled stories, as did the students who read fiction more frequently.

One positive way to look at these findings is that encountering a spoiler may not ruin your enjoyment as much as you think it will (if you’re a deep thinker), but probably will be a downer if you’re the kind of person who likes emotional surprises. Alternatively, perhaps this study is just too far removed from reality to offer much insight – after all, as the researchers acknowledge, they didn’t look at TV shows or movies (where plot spoilers are arguably more common), nor did they consider important variables such as genre (spoilers are presumably much more of an issue for horror and suspense) or story/show length.

Who’s Afraid of Spoilers: Need for Cognition, Need for Affect, and Narrative Selection and Enjoyment

further reading
A preliminary psychology of binge TV watching
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?

Most of us have unwanted thoughts and images that pop into our heads and it’s not a big deal. But for people with a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) these mental intrusions are frequently distressing and difficult to ignore. A new article in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy explores the possibility that the reason these thoughts become so troubling to some people is that they play on their fears about the kind of person they might be. Continue reading “Is OCD fuelled by a fear of the self?”

Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people’s minds

By guest blogger Vaughan Bell

Can you think a thought which isn’t yours? A remarkable new study, led by psychologist Jay Olson from McGill University in Canada, suggests you can. The research, published in Consciousness and Cognition, used a form of stage magic known as “mentalism” to induce the experience of thoughts being inserted into the minds of volunteers. It is an ingenious study, not only for how it created the experience, but also for how it used the psychology lab as both a stage prop and a scientific tool.

Years before he was famous, stage illusionist Derren Brown wrote a book called Pure Effect, where he argued that presenting tricks as “psychology” could be an effective form of misdirection. In his innovative shows, Brown often claims he is debunking psychics by demonstrating how psychology can be used to manipulate people’s minds. In practice, his mind-reading and mind control feats can involve the same traditional techniques used by stage magicians, it’s just that he presents them as psychology rather than magic.

Olson and his colleagues from McGill took this approach a step further, telling their participants that they were taking part in a study to see if an fMRI brain scanner could read thoughts and influence their mind.

Hidden from the participants was the fact that the experiment was actually conducted in a mock scanner – something that exists in most neuroimaging facilities to test experiments before they are run on the genuine equipment. To add to the plausibility of the story, the participants went through a realistic briefing, safety screening, and calibration procedure for an fMRI brain scan.

Participants were then asked to complete what they thought were “mind reading” and “mind influencing” experiments.

In the “mind reading” stage, researchers asked each participant to lie in the “scanner”, silently think of any two-digit number and press a button when they were done. The fMRI machine then produced a number on screen and the researcher could be seen writing the result onto a clipboard.

Next, the participant was asked to name the number they had silently thought of. The researcher turned the clipboard, stunning the participant by showing exactly their number – seemingly “read” from their mind by the power of fMRI.

The researchers are coy about exactly how this was achieved, only referencing an old mentalism book. In fact, they likely used a variation on a technique called the “swami gimmick” where the mentalist – the researcher in this case – has a fake rubber tip on the end of their thumb, which includes a barely visible shard of pencil lead. Earlier, when the researcher appeared to be writing the fMRI “mind reading” results, he was just pretending. What really happened is that, in the split second after the participant announced their secretly selected number, the researcher discreetly wrote it down on the clipboard using their thumb.

In the second, “mind influencing” condition, the participant was told that the machine was programmed to put a number into their mind. This time the researcher “wrote down” the number the machine had chosen to “transmit”. As before, the participant was asked to silently think of any two-digit number and after the “scan” the researcher seemed to show that the participant had thought of exactly the number the machine had ‘transmitted’ to them – using, of course, exactly the same thumb-writing trick as in the mindreading phase.

So here’s where the real psychology came in. After the scans, the researchers asked the participants to rate how much control they felt they had over their choice of numbers. Of course, in reality all their choices were completely voluntary, but in the second stage of the experiment, they believed they had less control and that the machine had influenced their thinking. Consistent with this perception, they also took longer to choose a number in the mind influencing condition than in the “mind reading” condition.

The researchers checked whether anyone had worked out what was really happening. A few participants expressed doubts about whether the “fMRI machine” was really influencing them and were removed from the analysis, but none suspected stage magic.

Olson and his colleagues replicated their results using a second experiment, run in exactly the same way, but this time they also interviewed the participants to find out what they’d felt during the procedure. They reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being “inserted” into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

But the research team’s motivations where not purely focused on everyday psychology. In some types of mental health problems, people start to experience their thoughts and actions being controlled by what seem like outside forces. Olson’s team hope that their work can provide a way of studying one aspect of this experience, safely and temporarily in the lab, potentially providing a window into how these more debilitating experiences affect the mind and brain.


Olson, J., Landry, M., Appourchaux, K., & Raz, A. (2016). Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic Consciousness and Cognition, 43, 11-26 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.04.010

Post written by Dr Vaughan Bell (@vaughanbell). Vaughan is a senior clinical lecturer at University College London and a clinical psychologist in the NHS.

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

We all differ in our ability to cope with contradictions and paradoxes. Introducing the "aintegration" test

Life is full of paradoxes and uncertainty – good people who do bad things, and questions with no right or wrong answer. But the human mind abhors doubt and contradictions, which provoke an uncomfortable state of “cognitive dissonance“. In turn, this motivates us to see the world in neat, black and white terms. For example, we’ll decide the good person must really have been bad all along, or conversely that the bad thing they did wasn’t really too bad after all. But a pair of researchers in Israel point out that some of us are better than others at coping with incongruence and doubt than others – an ability they call “aintegration” for which they’ve concocted a new questionnaire. The full version, together with background theory, is published in the Journal of Adult Development.

If you want to hear what the researchers found out about who copes best with uncertainty, skip past the two example items coming up next.

Jacob Lomranz and Yael Benyamini’s test begins: This questionnaire explores the way people think and feel about various attitudes. In the following pages you will be presented with attitudes held by different people. Please read each attitudinal position carefully and use the ratings scale to state your general and personal reaction as to such attitudes.

The test then features 11 items similar to these two:

EXAMPLE ITEM 1 There are people who will avoid making decisions under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity. In contrast, other people would make decisions even under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity. 

(a) In general, to what extent do you think it is possible to make decisions under
conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity?
1,2,3,4, or 5 (choose 1 to 5 where 1= not at all and 5=to a very great extent)

(b) Assuming someone does make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and
ambiguity, to what extent do you think this would cause her/him discomfort?

(c) To what extent do you make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and

(d) Assuming you made a decision under conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, to
what extent would that cause you discomfort?

EXAMPLE ITEM 2 There is an opinion that in every relationship between couples there are contradictory feelings; on the one hand, the individual benefits from the relationship (for example, love) and on the other hand loses from the relationship (for example, loss of independence).

– Some people claim that even when the couple has contradictory feelings about their relationship, a good relationship can still exist.
– In contrast, there are those who claim that when there are contradictory feelings about the couple relationship, it is impossible to maintain a good relationship.

(a) In general, to what extent do you think it is possible to have a good relationship when a couple has contradictory feelings about that relationship?
1234, or 5 (choose 1 to 5 where 1= not at all and 5=to a very great extent)

(b) Assuming someone persists with a relationship about which they have contradictory feelings, to what extent do you think this would cause her/him discomfort?

(c) To what extent do you have contradictory feelings about your relationship(s)?

(d) Assuming you have contradictory feelings, to what extent would that cause you discomfort?

Higher scores for (a) and (c) questions and lower scores for (b) and (d) questions mean that you have higher aintegration – that is, that you are better able to cope with uncertainty and contradictions.

To road test their questionnaire, the researchers gave the full version with 11 items to hundreds of people across three studies and they found that it had high levels of “internal reliability” – that is, people who scored high for aintegration on one item tended to do so on the others.

Lomranz and Benyamini also found some evidence that older people (middle-aged and up), divorcees, the highly educated and the less religious tended to score higher on aintegration. So too did people who had experienced more positive events in life, and those who saw their negative experiences in more complex terms, as having both good and bad elements. Moreover, higher scorers on aintegration reported experiencing fewer symptoms of trauma after negative events in life.

This last finding raises the possibility that aintegration may grant resilience to hardship, although longer-term research is needed to test this (an alternative possibility is that finding a way to cope with trauma promotes aintegration).

Higher scores on aintegration also tended to correlate negatively with the established psychological construct of “need for structure”.

The researchers said their paper was just a “first step” in establishing the validity of aintegration and that the concept could help inform future research especially with people “who dwell in states of transitions or ‘betweenness’, for example, struggling with national identities, cultural adjustment or conflicting values.”


Lomranz, J., & Benyamini, Y. (2015). The Ability to Live with Incongruence: Aintegration—The Concept and Its Operationalization Journal of Adult Development, 23 (2), 79-92 DOI: 10.1007/s10804-015-9223-4

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

What does an ambivalent mood do to your problem-solving skills?

Psychologists have got a pretty good picture of how we’re influenced by the big emotional states. Feeling positive encourages an explorative cognitive style that is risk-tolerant and well suited to the open aspects of creativity, whereas negative emotions make us sensitive to threat and prone to vigilant, focused thinking. But what happens when our emotional states are a mix of the two – when we’re in an ambivalent mood? Appropriately, research to date has been inconsistent, with some work suggesting it sharpens our minds, others that it distracts us. In a new paper in Journal of Applied Psychology researchers at the University of Virginia have tidied up the mixed findings about mixed feelings.

Cristiano Guarana and Morela Hernandez lay out why feeling ambivalent should facilitate decision-making: it sends a strong signal that a situation is complex, and that simple solutions are likely to be unsatisfactory. Consistent with this, past research, including their own, has shown ambivalence can lead to more cognitive flexibility and holistic, comprehensive solutions. But other research has linked ambivalence with poor decision-making. How can we reconcile these findings?

Guarana and Hernandez’s theory is that in a real-life situation it’s not always clear where your emotional states arrive from, and if you feel ambivalent, but haven’t bottomed out why, you won’t give that complex situation the attention it needs… and worse, you could attribute your feelings to a peripheral situation that will needlessly suck up your attention. For ambivalence to be cognitively advantageous, the state must be tied to its source.

The researchers conducted four experiments to test their explanation, with the final one combining all the clever bits of design into one setup. For this final study, the researchers first prompted their two hundred participants (all were employees from a range of organizations, on average 45 years old and two thirds were women) to experience feelings of ambivalence by asking them to write a short passage on a personal experience that involved either indifference or ambivalence. Next, the researchers warned half of the participants that the upcoming task could produce mixed reactions, priming them to recognise it as a source of ambivalence. The idea was that these participants would see the upcoming task as the source of their ambivalent feelings.

The main task involved participants reading a scenario about a fraudulent drug trial in which the researcher added made-up data points so he could release the drug to market. The participants then had to judge based on this limited information what happened next: whether they thought it was more likely that the drug was (a) withdrawn from the market, or (b) that it was withdrawn from the market after killing and injuring patients.

This is a classic decision-making conjunction problem: the conjunction of two events is never more likely than either alone, but superficial thinking can lead us to assume the more specific is more likely. In fact, the participants gave the wrong answer more often than right – unless they had been primed to see the test as a source of their ambivalent feelings, in which case they made the correct choice in two out of three instances.

Results from a supplementary task showed how participants thought about the scenario differently when they had been primed to see it as a source of their ambivalent feelings. After responding to the scenario, participants completed word fragments, e.g. DIS___, by writing in the end of words. Some of these fragments could potentially form words related to the drug-trial scenario (e.g. DISEASE). When participants completed the word fragments in this way, this was taken as a sign that they were more sensitive to the concepts in the scenario.

Participants in the priming condition produced more scenario-related words, and the more that they did this, the more likely it was that they also reached the correct solution. This is consistent with the idea that the primed participants tied their ambivalent feelings to the drug trial scenario, and that this encouraged them to pay more attention to it. Interestingly, Guarana and Hernandez showed this only applied to participants scoring low on a measure of self-control: people inclined to skirt difficult issues are the ones to benefit from recognising their ambivalence about a situation.

The message is clear: when you’re feeling a muss of conflicted feelings, take a step back and identify where that message is coming from. Do so, and you authorise your mind to attend to it in the best possible way.


Identified Ambivalence: When Cognitive Conflicts Can Help Individuals Overcome Cognitive Traps. Guarana, Cristiano L.; Hernandez, Morela Journal of Applied Psychology, Mar 10 , 2016.

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free weekly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

Most of us are overconfident about how much we understand things – this simple intervention can help

Most of us massively overestimate our understanding of everyday objects, like the vacuum cleaner


“True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know” Socrates.

When we’re asked how much we understand the workings of everyday things like vacuum cleaners or computer printers, most of us massively overestimate our own knowledge. This overconfidence extends beyond objects to more abstract matters, such as our comprehension of political policies, and collectively the phenomenon is known as “the illusion of explanatory depth”.

One already established antidote is to ask people produce a detailed explanation of whatever it is that they think they understand – after doing this, most of us come to realise the true modesty of our knowledge. However, as an intervention or “cure” for reducing over-confidence, producing full explanations is impractical because it is time consuming and unappealing. But now a team of psychologists at Washington and Lee University has demonstrated that it’s not necessary to have people generate full explanations – merely asking them to reflect briefly, in a very specific way, on their knowledge is enough to effectively combat overconfidence.

Across nine studies involving hundreds of people recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, the researchers tested the effectiveness of what they call “Reflecting on Explanatory Ability”. Before estimating their understanding of various objects, including vacuum cleaners, crossbows, treadmills and umbrellas, participants were instructed to:

“Carefully reflect on your ability to explain to an expert, in a step-by-step, causally-connected manner, with no gaps in your story how the object works”.

Spending a few seconds doing this was enough to substantially reduce people’s estimates of their own knowledge, almost as much as spending time typing out a full explanation, and far more than simply spending time on unguided reflection (in the unguided condition, the instruction was to “carefully reflect on your understanding of how the object works”).

The researchers believe that “Reflecting on Explanatory Ability” works because it forces people to assess the complexity of the object they’re thinking about and to get a sense of the number of gaps in their knowledge. Supporting this interpretation, the researchers found that the guided reflection instructions were not as effective when they lacked the specific wording “in a step-by-step, causally connected manner”. Similarly, adding the additional, later instruction to “estimate how many steps it would take to explain how the parts enable the object to work” did not enhance the “Reflection on Explanatory Ability” intervention, suggesting that this is what the intervention already prompts participants to do.

Also consistent with the idea that the “Reflection on Explanatory Ability” intervention works by provoking participants to perform a quick complexity assessment, the researchers found that their intervention was less effective at correcting people’s confidence in their knowledge of less complex objects (the researchers acknowledged this means there is still a useful role for generating full explanations in these cases).

In another test, the researchers checked and confirmed that the benefits of their “Reflection on Explanatory Ability” intervention were not due to participants producing silent explanations in their heads – that is, the intervention was just as effective whether participants reflected for five or twenty seconds (if they were engaging in covert explanation, then the intervention should have been more effective after twenty seconds).

In the final study, the researchers showed that their intervention doesn’t just help combat people’s overconfidence in their understanding of objects, it can also reduce their overconfidence in their understanding of political policies (such as the idea of merit-based pay for teachers), and as a consequence, it makes their attitudes towards those policies more moderate.

Johnson and his team concluded that “Reflection on Explanatory Ability; REA” is a “rare metacognitive tool in the arsenal to combat our proclivity to overestimate understanding” and that “perhaps REA can help us gain the wisdom to which Socrates was referring.”

ResearchBlogging.orgJohnson, D., Murphy, M., & Messer, R. (2016). Reflecting on Explanatory Ability: A Mechanism for Detecting Gaps in Causal Knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/xge0000161

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

10 Studies That Show The Advantages of Feeling Sad

As human beings, there’s no avoiding feeling sad – as R.E.M. put it “everybody cries, and everybody hurts sometimes”. We usually think of this as an unpleasant state, and for those of us who want to minimise our miserable moods as much as possible, the internet is bursting with tips on how to be happier. But with this post, I wanted to take a different approach, to explore the benefits, if any, of embracing your low moods. I’m not talking about serious, debilitating depression, but more mundane, moderate levels of moodiness. In short, I looked for any psychology research that shows the potential upsides to feeling a little bit down. Here are ten studies I found:

1Bad moods can be motivating (when they’re followed by good moods)
A 2011 study that assessed software developers twice a day for 55 days found that the most engaged with their work in the afternoon were those who’d switched from a bad mood to a positive one, as compared with those who were happy all day or fed up all day. The finding is consistent with what’s known as the “affective shift model” of work engagement. “We think it is of benefit to understand and accept that negative mood and negative events, such as crises, conflicts, and errors, are integral and unavoidable aspects of human action at work,” the researchers said. “In the absence of negative experiences, people will perceive less necessity to act and show lower levels of work engagement.”

2. Embrace your bad moods and they won’t do you harm
For a study published last year, researchers interviewed 365 German participants about their attitudes to negative and positive emotions, and about their mental and physical health. The researchers then monitored the participants’ mood states over a three-week period using their smart phones. The links between people’s frequency of bad moods and negative outcomes (in terms of mental and physical health) varied depending on the attitudes they held toward negative emotion. Those participants who had negative attitudes toward bad moods tended to pay the usual price: the more negative moods they experienced, the poorer their mental and physical health, both in the moment and longer term (for example, based on their number of health complaints). However, among the participants who had a more positive attitude toward bad moods, these links were mostly reduced, or in some cases even absent completely.

3. There’s a good chance you’ll feel better after having a proper cry
Giving yourself a chance to wallow in your sadness can sometimes be cathartic, at least in the short term. That was the message from a study published in 2011, in which 97 female undergrads completed a crying diary for between 40 and 73 days. Most often, mood after crying was reported as unchanged (60.8 per cent), but 30 per cent of tearful sessions were associated with a positive mood change, with only 8.8 per cent leading to a deterioration in mood. More intense (but not longer) crying episodes were associated with more positive mood outcomes, as were crying episodes that followed a feeling of inadequacy and that triggered a positive change in the situation. Also, crying in the company of one other person was associated more often with positive mood change than was crying alone or crying in the company of multiple people.

4. You’re more persuasive when you’re sad
For this research released in 2007, participants were provoked into happy or sad moods by watching short films, either featuring comedy or a person dying from illness. Next, they had to write down arguments to persuade someone to change their mind about a controversial issue, such as student fees or Aboriginal land rights in Australia. Across several studies testing variants of this set up, sad people produced more effective messages than happy people, and what’s more, their arguments were more persuasive. The effect seemed to be due to the fact that sad people produced more concrete and specific arguments than happy people.

5. Mild depression may come with enhanced empathy 
Depressed people are normally thought of as being somewhat disengaged from the rest of the world, but in 2005 psychologists at Queen’s University in Canada found that mildly depressed students actually had a heightened ability to detect other people’s emotions from photos that showed only the eye region of their face. Unfortunately, this “advantage” could backfire. The researchers said ultra sensitivity to other people’s emotions could cause problems for individuals prone to depression – “by being more sensitive, dysphoric and depressed individuals have more opportunities to deploy their negative biases in interpreting fleeting emotional reactions,” they said.

6. Being in a grump probably won’t affect your mental performance
For a study published this year, researchers had participants complete similar versions of the same mental tests for five consecutive days, including memory and processing speed. Each day before the tests, the participants also completed comprehensive measures of their mood. The participants mood and mental performance fluctuated over the course of the study, but crucially the two were not linked – in other words, there was no evidence that being in a bad mood was associated with performing more poorly on the mental tests.

7. Sad leaders encourage an analytical thinking style 
In this research from 2013, business students received task instructions and encouragement from a manager who spoke to them via video link. The wording of the leader’s guidance was the same for all students, but some of them watched the manager deliver his advice in a happy mood, while the others watched him while he was in a sad mood. After the video, those students who’d watched the happy manager excelled at a creative task (coming up with ideas of what you can do with a glass of water), but meanwhile the students who had the sad manager excelled at sudoku puzzles, used as a measure of analytical thinking.

8. Feeling sad makes you less prone to misleading information 
For research conducted in 2005, participants looked at pictures of a car crash. About an hour later, they recalled either happy or sad events from their lives, which had the effect of putting them in a happy or sad mood. Next, they answered questions about the car crash, some of which were misleading, such as “did you see the fireman holding a fire hose?” (in fact there was no fire hose). The key finding is that sad participants were less often mislead by this kind of false information than happy participants. The researchers said their results were consistent with other findings showing that “negative moods often promote a more accommodating, externally oriented and piecemeal information processing style that often results in more accurate and less distorted judgments and inferences.”

9. You’re less gullible when you’re feeling down
Being sad also makes us less gullible and better at detecting lies, according to a study published in 2008. Participants were provoked into happy or sad moods by watching suitably themed films. Next, they watched videos of people lying or telling the truth about whether they’d stolen a movie ticket from someone’s room. The sad participants were more skeptical in general in their response to these videos, and they were better at detecting when the people in the videos were lying. “Our findings may also help to highlight the potentially beneficial effects of negative mood and the possible undesirable consequences of good mood in some circumstances,” the researchers said. “The cognitive benefits of negative affect can be understood in terms of the more accommodative, externally oriented processing style it induces,” they added.

10. Bad moods are part of a meaningful life
They say only a fool can be happy. That might be overstating it, but an American survey published in 2013 did find that people who rated their lives as more meaningful also tended to report experiencing more stress, anxiety and worry. The researchers, led by Roy Baumeister, concluded that the highly meaningful but relatively unhappy life has “received relatively little attention and even less respect” to date. “But people who sacrifice their personal pleasures in order to participate constructively in society may make substantial contributions,” they said.  “Cultivating and encouraging such people despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.”


Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!

You’ll get over it, you’re probably better at managing guilt and shame than you think

A recurring finding in psychology is that people tend to overestimate the strength of their future emotions, an error known as the “intensity bias”. You imagine that failing your driving test will leave you in the depths of despair, for example, but actually when it happens, you don’t really feel too bad – the examiner was mean, you were feeling tired, and anyway you’ve still got your mate’s party to look forward to next weekend. In other words, the reason you overestimated the emotional impact of the exam failure, is that you underestimated your powers of emotional regulation. A new study in Cognition and Emotion puts this account to the test, specifically for the emotions of guilt and shame.

Wilco van Dijk and his colleagues recruited 52 students and allocated half to complete three tests with a partner (an actor pretending to be another student), and the other half to forecast how they would feel in the testing situation were they to do it. The “experiencers” were told that if they and their partner together averaged a score of over 60 per cent on the maths, language and puzzle tests, then they would receive a cash bonus. After taking the tests, these participants were given fixed feedback informing them that they’d personally underperformed (designed to induce shame), and that therefore both they and their partner would miss out on the cash bonus (designed to induce guilt). The “forecasters” were asked to imagine being in this exact same situation and how they would feel.

After receiving the bad news about their performance, the experiencers rated their levels of guilt and shame, and how much they engaged in various strategies that usually reduce emotional intensity, including reappraising the situation (measured by agreement with statements like “the task wasn’t that important”); suppressing their feelings (“I’m trying to be as calm as possible”); and acceptance (“I can live with the current situation”); and also how much they engaged in rumination, which usually increases emotional intensity (“I’m thinking mostly about what I did wrong”). Meanwhile, the forecasters stated how much guilt and shame they thought they would experience if they were in this situation, and how much emotional regulation they thought they would probably engage in.

The main finding is that the forecasters overestimated how much guilt and shame they thought they would experience (as compared with the actual emotions reported by the experiencers) – this is a classic example of the intensity bias, but the first time it’s been demonstrated for the so-called “self-conscious” emotions of guilt and shame. The forecasters also underestimated how much acceptance they would engage in, and they overestimated how much they would ruminate. Moreover, the forecasters’ overestimation of their guilt and shame was largely explained by their misjudgments about their likely use of acceptance and rumination.

Of course just because we tend underestimate the intensity of our future emotions from an objective point of view, doesn’t mean that this is an unhelpful bias to have. The researchers point out, for example, that the intensity bias could help motivate us to avoid bad outcomes and find positive ones (I would add that in the case of anticipated guilt and shame, the bias also likely helps encourage people to engage in more ethical behaviour). “Thus, although turning a blind eye to our emotion regulation processes can be regarded as error when we look in the crystal ball of our emotion lives,” the researchers said, “it is perhaps not a grave one”.


van Dijk, W., van Dillen, L., Rotteveel, M., & Seip, E. (2016). Looking into the crystal ball of our emotional lives: emotion regulation and the overestimation of future guilt and shame Cognition and Emotion, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1129313

further reading
Guilt-prone people are highly skilled at recognising other people’s emotions
Guilt is catching

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!