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The upside of sadness

The upside of sadness

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Youth

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Youth
Joseph Forgas is a Scientia Professor of Psychology at The University of New South Wales. His research, supported through the ARC Discovery Projects scheme, focuses on the relationship between cognitive processes and interpersonal behaviour. He is particularly interested in how peoples’ affective states—such as moods–come to influence the way they interpret, remember, evaluate and respond to social information. Several of Professor Forgas’ more recent studies found that mild negative moods might have a beneficial effect on how people process and respond to various social situations.

“I was always interested in the cognitive processes underlying social judgments and interpersonal behaviour,” says Professor Forgas. “I first became intrigued by the cognitive consequences of affective states during a sabbatical visit to Stanford University, where Professor Gordon Bower was doing pioneering experiments on mood effects on memory. It was a relatively unexplored field at the time, so at first I wasn’t clear where this research might lead.”

Professor Forgas’ experiments have shown that, rather surprisingly, experiencing a mild negative mood can produce a number of intriguing benefits, including significant improvements in attention, memory, as well as more accurate judgements, and more effective communication strategies.

“Although perhaps contrary to popular intuition, we were not entirely surprised by these results. One advance source of our predictions was derived from recent advances in evolutionary psychology, which suggested that all affective states, even unpleasant ones, are likely to have an adaptive function.”

It is already well known among emotion researchers that intense negative emotions such as anger—mobilizing effort to overcome obstacles—and disgust—which helps to avoid harmful substances—have an important adaptive evolutionary role. The possible adaptive functions of sadness or ‘dysphoria’ however, remained poorly understood until recently.

“As well as suspecting a possible adaptive role, some cognitive theories also suggested that positive and negative affective states may well promote qualitatively different information processing strategies,” says Professor Forgas.

In these experiments, the researchers induced positive or negative mood by asking participants to view happy or sad films, listen to happy or sad music, or receive positive or negative feedback about their performance. Next, in what is described as an unrelated experiment, participants are asked to perform various social tasks involving memory, judgments, decisions or communication.

“In one study, we asked happy or sad participants to participate in economic decision games, such as the ‘dictator game’ or the ‘ultimatum game’, where they had to allocate scarce resources (for example, raffle tickets) between themselves and a partner. In such a decision situation, people face a conflict between following their internal motives to be selfish, or pay greater attention to external norms, such as the norm of fairness.

“We expected that mild negative mood should promote greater attention to the outside world, such as fairness norms and the other person, and consistent with this prediction, we found that those in a negative mood were indeed significantly fairer, and kept fewer resources for themselves, and were more generous to their partners. In other words, as good or bad mood causes a slight shift in processing attention, this can ultimately result in a demonstrable difference in the way social decisions are made.”

Other recent experiments found that persons in an induced negative mood are also less gullible, are better at detecting deception, communicate more effectively, and are more sensitive to the communication mistakes of others.

This research program was supported through an ARC Discovery Projects grant, and Professor Forgas has received continuous support through the ARC Discovery Projects scheme and also through an earlier ARC Special Investigator Award for his entire academic career.

“I think the ARC does an excellent job of supporting fundamental research,” says Professor Forgas, “although the grants process has become rather more administratively cumbersome compared to the early years,” he adds.

Professor Forgas says that one of the implications of his research is to provide an alternative message to the prevailing emphasis in popular culture on the ‘cult of happiness’, which in any case is not a realistically achievable goal. Emphasizing only the value of positive emotions may actually be causing inevitable disappointment, even depression for some people.

“Our contemporary culture seems obsessed with the unrelenting pursuit of enduring happiness, a desire relentlessly exploited by advertising and marketing—yet this is neither a feasible, nor really a desirable objective,” says Professor Forgas. “A saner approach would be to accept that all affective states serve a useful purpose, and temporary periods of dysphoria are a normal part of the human affective repertoire. It is not coincidental that most great works of art were also conceived in, and explore the landscape of more negative, reflective emotions.

“It is important to realise that the human affective repertoire exists to provide adaptive benefits when managing everyday situations. Negative affective states, including sadness, often also have a useful function, in triggering a more attentive processing strategy and increasing attention to the outside world.

Professor Forgas’ research team is now undertaking experiments to look at the effects of mood states on interpersonal communication processes—the use of language as well as nonverbal communication strategies. These studies help us to construct a more balanced picture of functions and potential benefits of all affective states, including negative ones.

“Of course, severe and enduring sadness is a clinical condition requiring therapy, but mild and temporary negative moods are simply part of the human condition,” says Professor Forgas.

Image: Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Youth c.1482/1485. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington (NGA Images—open access).

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