Psychology shows that it doesn't
take much to put you in a bad mood. Just reading the morning news can do it.
And being in a bad mood slows your reaction time, and affects your basic
cognitive abilities like speech, writing, and counting. If you read a
depressing newspaper headline in the morning, you may perform worse at work
throughout the day.
But new research by Dr Moshe Shay
Ben-Haim, Yaniv Mama, Michal Icht, and Daniel Algom of Tel Aviv University's
School of Psychological Sciences now reveals that repeated exposure to a
negative event neutralizes its effect on your mood and your thinking. The
study, published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, has broad
implications for understanding our emotions.
"A bad mood is known to slow
cognition," says Dr Ben-Haim. "We show that, counterintuitively, you
can avoid getting into a bad mood in the first place by dwelling on a negative
event. If you look at the newspaper before you go to work and see a headline
about a bombing or tragedy of some kind, it's better to read the article all
the way through and repeatedly expose yourself to the negative information. You
will be freer to go on with your day in a better mood and without any negative
The "emotional Stroop
task" is the most-used psychological test in evaluating our emotional
state. Participants are shown a number of words and asked to name the colours
in which they are printed. In general, it takes people longer to identify the colours
of negative words like "terrorism" than of neutral words like
"table". The trend is particularly pronounced in people with
emotional disorders, like depression or anxiety.
There are two general explanations
offered. One is that negative words are more distracting, and the other is that
they are more threatening. According to both theories, the result is that fewer
mental resources are available to identify the ink colours.
Neither explanation appears to
predict sustained effects. After the initial distraction or threat, people
should be expected to return to identifying the ink colours of neutral words
without a delay. Indeed, the few previous studies that have been done on the
subject show that it does not matter whether people are shown negative or
neutral words first. But in a series of four experiments involving the
emotional Stroop task, the researchers showed that these studies are biased by
a quirk of the test's design as it is usually administered.
In most cases, people are shown four
or five negative words, along with four or five neutral words, in the test 10
to 12 times. The researchers found, after being shown the same negative word
only twice, subjects were able to identify the ink colour without a delay. On
the other hand, when people are shown the negative words just once, they
subsequently name the ink colours of neutral words more slowly. The existing
theories can't account for these results.
The researchers suggest an
alternative explanation based on previous research. The negative words shown to
people in the emotional Stroop task put them in a bad mood, but through repetition,
the words lose their affective power. The researchers' explanation was
supported by a questionnaire administered to people after they completed the
Those who had seen each negative
word only once were put in a bad mood and suffered from sustained effects,
while those who had seen the negative words repeatedly did not suffer from the
same after-effects. The participants who were in a bad mood also took longer to
complete the evaluating questionnaire.
The researchers' work could have a
major impact on our understanding of emotions, attention, and how we process
cues in the environment. It could also influence the diagnosis and treatment of