Cognitive processing biases and positive affect

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In Chapter 6 on fear and Chapter 7 on sadness we saw that there is a growing body of research into processing biases associated with these emotions, particularly when the material to be processed is affectively valenced in one way or another. The line we have taken in those chapters (and elsewhere, see Champion & Power, 1995; Dalgleish, 1994b; Dalgleish & Power, 1999; Power & Champion, 1986) is that processing biases are not exclusively the preserve of mood-disordered individuals, but rather are present as ways of selecting and ordering personally relevant information in everybody. We have further suggested that different emotional states seem to be associated with different profiles of processing biases across a range of tasks (cf. Harvey et al., 2004; Williams et al., 1997). So, for example, anxiety seems to be associated with attentional biases and sad mood with mnemonic biases. These particular profiles of processing bias for different emotions, we argued in Chapter 5, are a constituent of being in that particular emotion module; that is, they are a function of the reconfiguration of the entire SPAARS system once a particular emotion state becomes predominant.

The majority of research with sad and anxious moods has focused on fundamental cognitive processes such as memory, attention, and perception. In contrast to this, much of the research on cognitive processing and positive affect has looked at higher-order processes such as decision making and judgements. We have reviewed the literature on mood biases and memory and attention in earlier chapters. Here we shall concentrate on the effects of positive mood on higher-order processes, although we note with interest the research based on Fredrickson's broaden-and-build approach (Fredrickson, 2005; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005) discussed earlier which gives preliminary support for a broadening of attention effect with positive mood. We shall first consider some of the factors that interact with positive mood to influence an individual's performance on such higher-order processing tasks. We shall then look at some examples of research which have used such tasks to elucidate the role of positive affect in information processing. We have been somewhat selective in this process and the reader is referred to excellent reviews by Alice Isen (1999, 2000) for a more comprehensive discussion of these issues.

There are four factors that it seems important to consider in any analysis of the effects of positive mood on processing tasks. These are (1) a basic memory bias for positive material (see Chapter 7); (2) the interest level and importance of the task at hand; (3) the tendency of the cognitive system to maintain positive affect (see above); and (4) the association between the use of heuristics and stereotypes in processing and the existence of positive affect.

A number of studies have indicated that the presence of positive feelings is likely to cue positive items in memory, thus making access to such material easier (e.g., Isen, Shalker, Clark, & Karp, 1978; Nasby & Yando, 1982; Teasdale & Fogarty, 1979; MacLeod, Anderson, & Davies, 1994). For example, MacLeod et al. (1994) asked participants to provide self-ratings of positive and negative affect terms and to retrieve personal memories associated with those terms. Self-rated positive affect was associated with the latency to retrieve positive affect memories but not negative affect memories. Similarly, self-rated negative affect was associated with the latency to retrieve negative but not positive affect-related memories. This dissociation of the effects of positive and negative affect on memory has been a ubiquitous finding. Furthermore, a number of studies have also noted an asymmetry between the two types of emotional state; that is, although positive affect is an effective retrieval cue for positive material in memory, negative affect is not always found to be an effective cue for negative material (see the review of depressive realism research in Chapter 7). A study by Storbeck and Clore (2005) used the so-called Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm in which the participant is given a list of words (e.g., bed, pillow, rest, awake, dream) that share a non-presented "critical lure" (i.e., "sleep" in this example). The findings showed that induced positive mood increased the likelihood that critical lures would be recalled in comparison to negative mood induction. The researchers interpret the findings as further evidence for an increase in connections and global processing with positive affect, although such processes can lead to increased errors under certain conditions.

The memory bias effect is clearly likely to be an important factor when trying to understand any research involving the effect of positive mood on higher-order processes such as thinking and reasoning, especially when those tasks involve valenced material. A related factor to this, according to Isen (1999, 2000), is that because positive material is more extensive and diverse than other material in memory in healthy participants (e.g., Cramer, 1968), the cognitive context is more complex when a person is feeling happy because a broader range of ideas is cued, a proposal that is also central to the broaden-and-build approach (Fredrickson, 1998, 2005). Consequently, positive affect may influence the context within which any information-processing task is carried out and there is clear evidence that such context is also a factor that influences thinking and decision making (e.g., Bransford, 1979; Kahneman, 1999; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).

The second factor that is important when considering the influence of positive affect on information processing is that the precise effect that such feelings have seems to be a function of how interesting or important the task is to the individual participant. Individuals in whom positive affect has been induced show a number of information-processing differences from controls, but usually only on tasks or with material that is relatively interesting or important to them (e.g., Isen et al, 1985, 1991; Kraiger, Billings, & Isen, 1989; Isen & Patrick, 1983).

The third factor, and one that we have discussed above in the section on the relationship between schematic models and goals, is the configuration of the emotion system to maintain positive affect in healthy individuals. Consequently, individuals who are experiencing positive affect may avoid difficult or unpleasant tasks or materials, and may opt to work with more pleasant items instead (e.g., Isen & Reeve, 1992; Isen & Simmonds, 1978).

The final factor to consider when analysing the effects of positive affect on cognitive processes is the increasing body of evidence which suggests that individuals experiencing positive affect are more likely to recruit heuristics or stereotypes when faced with task demands, as opposed to systematically processing the various options available. For example, Bodenhausen, Kramer, and Susser (1994) report four experiments examining the effects of happiness on the tendency to use stereotypes in social judgement. In each experiment, participants in the induced happy mood rendered more stereotypical judgements than those in a neutral mood. However, when the participants were told that they would have to be held accountable for their judgements, the stereotypic thinking bias disappeared. This finding that although there is some evidence for the use of stereotypes and heuristics in individuals with positive affect, they can nevertheless still engage in more systematic processing of the material when required, has been repeated in a number of other studies (see Isen, 2000, for a review).

Having considered a number of important factors that bear on an understanding of the influence of positive affect or happiness on processing tasks, it is useful to look at one or two examples of experiments from the literature that implicate these factors in various ways. Isen et al. (1992) carried out a series of studies to examine the influence of positive affect on categorisation. The participants were requested to rate the degree to which atypical examples of positive or negative categories of people (e.g., "bartender" as a member of the category "nurturant people") fit as members of that category. Positive-affect participants rated atypical members of positive categories as fitting better in the category than controls; however, this effect was not present for the negative person categories (e.g., "genius" as a member of a negative category "unstable people"). Isen et al.'s explanation of these findings indicates the ways in which the various factors we have discussed above might interact. They argue that:

although an underlying process (increased elaboration) is postulated to occur, this process is expected to be different for different kinds of material in the situation described. Since positive affect cues positive material, the elaborative process would be expected to occur with positive material (for all subjects) or for positive-affect subjects working with neutral material. (Isen, 1993, p. 265)

Furthermore, as suggested above, the positive-affect participants may make a choice not to deal with the negative material.

Finally, a number of studies have investigated the influence of positive affect on complex decision making. Briefly, the studies suggest that individuals who are experiencing positive affect are both more efficient in decision making, but at the same time are also able to be more thorough if the task demands require such increased effort. For example, Isen et al. (1991) asked medical students to choose the patient most likely to have a diagnosis of lung cancer from six descriptions of patients varying with respect to each of nine health-relevant labels (e.g., cough, chest X-ray, and so on). The participants were assigned to one of two groups—a positive-affect group or a control group. Both groups performed similarly with respect to their ability to make the correct choice of patient. However, the positive-affect participants made the choice significantly earlier in their protocols. Of additional interest, the positive-affect participants went on to do much more with the materials they were presented with; they proposed working diagnoses for the other (control) patients in the study and started to make suggestions concerning treatment plans.

In summary, in this section we have presented some examples of a large body of research examining the effects of positive mood or happiness on various types of cognitive processing. We have reviewed the arguments that the pattern of performance on a variety of processing tasks and in a variety of situations is a function not just of the person's affective state, but also of the parameters of the task itself; for example, whether the task is intrinsically interesting, whether it involves positive material, whether it can be solved using stereotypic thinking or requires more systematic processing.

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Pruning The Elements Of Death

Pruning The Elements Of Death

Learning About Pruning The Elements Of Death In Your Life Can Have Amazing Benefits For Your Life And Success! Discover how you can give yourself new life by cutting off sources of negativity! The concept of positive thinking has interpenetrated our culture. It's a philosophy of faith that doesn't ignore life’s troubles, but instead explains a pragmatic approach to life’s full potentiality.

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