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Having a Bad Temper or Being in Good Spirits: How Do Moods Affect Our Thinking?

November 21, 2013

By René Ziegler, Christian Schlett (University of Tübingen, Germany), and Arzu Aydinli (Tilburg University, Netherlands)

Imagine that one day, when the sun is shining brightly and your mood is cheery, you come across a headline of an online newspaper or magazine article that suggests a position that is inconsistent with your attitude on a topic of some interest to you (i.e., neither very important nor unimportant to you); it is, in social psychological terms, a counterattitudinal message. Are you going to read the article thoroughly and think about the issues it raises? When you are in a positive mood are you more happy-go-lucky and uncritical, and less thorough in your thinking, whereas a negative mood makes you hypercritical, discerning, and very thorough when thinking about a counterattitudinal message? Our research, recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Ziegler, Schlett, & Aydinli, 2013), indicates that mood influences how people think about counterattitudinal messages–but not in the way most people think it does.

Sometimes we are in an elated mood and see life through rose-colored glasses. At other times, however, we are in a slightly depressed mood and take a gloomy view of life. Indeed, our expectations about life, the universe, and everything (cf. Adams, 1979) are dyed by our current mood (e.g. Mayer, Gaschke, Braverman, & Evans, 1992). When in a happy mood, we are more optimistic in general as well as in regard to probabilities concerning specific positive and negative future events, short-term and long-term events, and the personal, interpersonal, and impersonal spheres. Overall, it appears that happy individuals have positive expectations and thus tend to assume that the world is a place in which people are good and good things happen. Sad individuals, in contrast, hold more negative expectations and hence tend to assume that the world is rather a place in which people are bad and bad things happen.

However, as singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette put it in her song “Ironic”, “life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right. And life has a funny way of helping you out when you think everything’s gone wrong and everything blows up in your face”. Indeed, our mood-based expectations are not always met by reality. Whereas many things may fit with our positive expectations in positive mood, sometimes things happen that are (unfortunately) not in line with our positive expectations. Similarly, whereas our negative expectations in negative mood are confirmed at times, other things also may happen that (fortunately) disconfirm our negative expectations. Sure enough, as a bon mot by German humorist Wilhelm Busch suggests, “Surprise will leave you most affected, wherever you did not expect it” (1908). Indeed, research has shown that we are taken by surprise when our expectations are disconfirmed, leading us to think more thoroughly. Recent research guided by the mood-congruent expectancies approach (for an overview see Ziegler, in press) has shown that this tendency also holds true in regard to expectations elicited by our current mood.

Earlier research found that happy individuals think less about a persuasive message advocating a counterattitudinal position than both sad individuals and individuals in a neutral mood. As research by Wegener, Petty, and Smith (1995) showed, this was the case because a counterattitudinal message may undermine a person’s positive mood. As other research has shown, happy individuals are more wary of the affective consequences of thorough thinking than sad individuals or individuals in a neutral mood. Specifically, motivated by the desire to maintain rather than ruining their elated affective state, happy individuals may refrain from effortful thinking about a counterattitudinal message.

More recently, however, Ziegler (2013) argued that counterattitudinal messages are not all mood-threatening to the same extent. For example, whereas a message advocating an increase of sales tax rates may be counterattitudinal and quite mood-threatening for most, a message advocating a counterattitudinal position regarding a budget change for space exploration programs may be less mood-threatening. Nonetheless, a counterattitudinal message should be less congruent with positive expectations of happy individuals as compared to negative expectations of sad individuals (and vice versa in case of a proattitudinal message). Hence, happy individuals should think more diligently about a counterattitudinal message not threatening their elated mood than sad individuals. Indeed, two studies have shown that happy people invest more effort in thinking about a counterattitudinal message than sad people (and vice versa in case of a proattitudinal message; Ziegler, 2013; see also Ziegler, 2010).

To delineate when thinking about a counterattitudinal message is affected by mood-congruent expectancies (Ziegler, in press) and when it is affected by the desire to maintain an existing positive mood (Wegener et al., 1995), we conducted an experiment that directly contrasted these two mechanisms (Ziegler, Schlett, & Aydinli, 2013). To this end, we first put participants in a positive, neutral, or negative mood by showing them a short happy, neutral, or sad movie clip. Afterwards, they were presented with a counterattitudinal message which contained either strong arguments or weak arguments pertaining to the topic (the construction of a tunnel). Furthermore, the message either contained statements threatening individuals’ attitudinal freedom (e.g. “you have no choice but to agree with me”) or did not contain such statements. As research has shown, restricting people’s freedom to think (or do) what they want is aversive and may be experienced as annoying. Hence, we assumed and found that a counterattitudinal message with freedom-threatening statements is more mood-threatening than a counterattitudinal message without freedom-threatening statements.

Moreover, as predicted by the mood-congruent expectancies approach, happy individuals thought about the counterattitudinal message more carefully than sad individuals when their mood was not threatened by freedom-threatening statements (see Figure 1, top panel). Specifically, indicating careful thinking, happy individuals’ agreement with the counterattitudinal position was higher when supported by strong as compared to weak arguments. Similarly, the message source was perceived more positively when presenting strong arguments. Sad individuals’ reactions, in contrast, were unaffected by argument strength (cf. Ziegler, 2013). Reactions by individuals in neutral mood revealed that their thinking effort was intermediate to that of happy and sad individuals. When the message contained freedom-threatening statements, in contrast, findings were in line with assumptions regarding happy individuals’ desire to maintain their affective state. Happy individuals thought less diligently about the arguments than individuals in a neutral mood (see Figure 1, bottom panel).

Figure 1. Attitudes as a function of recipients’ mood, threat to freedom, and argument strength. Higher scores represent more agreement with the counterattitudinal position advanced in the message. Top panel: Attitudes in conditions without freedom-threatening statements. Bottom panel: Attitudes in conditions with additional freedom-threatening statements.

Figure 1. Attitudes as a function of recipients’ mood, threat to freedom, and argument strength. Higher scores represent more agreement with the counterattitudinal position advanced in the message. Top panel: Attitudes in conditions without freedom-threatening statements. Bottom panel: Attitudes in conditions with additional freedom-threatening statements.

Thus, positive mood may lead us to think more thoroughly about something that is incongruent with our worldview than negative mood – unless we are afraid that thinking damages our elated affective state. More generally, recent research suggests that both positive and negative mood may evoke more diligent thinking when our mood-congruent expectations have been disconfirmed, and thus takes us by surprise (Ziegler, in press). Hence, instead of positive mood making us carefree, and negative mood making us hypercritical, under opposing circumstances either being in good spirits or having a bad temper may lead to more thorough thinking.


Author Information

DrZieglerRené Ziegler is Associate Professor in the fields of social psychology and work psychology of the Department of Psychology at the University of Tübingen. He investigates a range of processes related  to work, with a particular focus on the causes and consequences of ambivalent attitudes to work, persuasive communication processes, and effects of mood on social judgments.

SchlettChristian Schlett is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tübingen. He is interested in the causes and consequences of work attitudes. In particular, his research investigates causes and consequences of individual differences regarding the affective and cognitive basis of job satisfaction.

AydinliArzu Aydinli is a PhD student in Cross-Cultural Psychology at Tilburg University (Netherlands), in collaboration with Koc University (Istanbul, Turkey). Her research interests revolve around culture, motivation, and prosocial behavior. In particular, her PhD project aims at identifying developmental and motivational pathways leading to informal helping and volunteering from a cross-cultural perspective.


References

Adams, D. (1979). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Pan.

Busch, W. (1908). Hernach (Afterwards). Lothar Joachim, München.

Mayer, J. D., Gaschke, Y. N., Braverman, D. L., & Evans, T. W. (1992). Mood-congruent judgment is a general effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 119-132.

Wegener, D. T., Petty, R. E., & Smith, S. M. (1995). Positive mood can increase or decrease message scrutiny: The hedonic contingency view of mood and message processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 5-15.

Ziegler, R. (2010), Mood, source characteristics, and message processing: A mood-congruent expectancies approach. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 743-752.

Ziegler, R. (2013), Mood and processing of proattitudinal and counterattitudinal messages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 482-495.

Ziegler, R. (in press), Mood and processing effort: The mood-congruent expectancies approach. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.

Ziegler, R., Schlett, C. & Aydinli, A. (2013), Mood and threat to attitudinal freedom: Delineating the role of mood congruency and hedonic contingency in counterattitudinal message processing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1083-1096.


Image Credit: Young Woman Using Computer, Stock Photo, By Stuart Miles, published on 26 August 2011, Stock Photo – image ID: 10054776, from FreeDigitalPhotos.net http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/Computing_g368-Young_Woman_Using_Computer_p54776.html

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