Planning to buy a car? If you want the best deal, wait until you’re in a really foul mood. A study out of the University of New South Wales found that subjects who felt miserable paid more attention to their surroundings, had better discrimination, were less gullible and showed better recollection than their more cheerful cohorts. (So you’d better hope your car salesman is in a good mood — assuming you’re one of the few people buying a car nowadays!)
The researchers put subjects through a series of tests in order to reach their findings. In one such test, the subjects observed a staged fight between students and a teacher in a lecture hall. A week later, the subjects reported to the lab where they watched 10-minute videos intended to induce either happy, sad, or neutral moods. Those subjects who saw the depressing videos did much better at recalling accurately what had happened during the fight earlier in the week compared to the students who saw the happy film. Apparently, good moods led subjects to spruce up their memories with irrelevant and misleading details — almost like putting flowers on the table in a dirty room. The grumps, though, remembered events with sober clarity. (Perhaps part of cramming for finals should be watching Gigli just before the exam.)
In another test, subjects again watched mood-altering films. Then, they had to rate the accuracy of a series of urban myths. The subjects who saw the depressing films did a much better job of discerning reality than did those who had watched happy flicks. They also communicated more clearly. The sad subjects did far better at stating their case in written arguments. Study director and professor of psychology Dr. Joseph Forgas explained that a “mildly negative mood may actually promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.”
Apparently, the researchers found that gloomy weather exerted the same effect on subjects. On beautiful, sunny days, the memory lagged, but on gray, miserable days, the memory functioned just fine. So perhaps it’s no accident that Microsoft is based in Seattle; then again, that would make Silicon Valley harder to explain.
According to Dr. Forgas, “Our research suggests that sadness…promotes information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more demanding situations. Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking paying greater attention to the external world.” Well, there you go. That’s why Google and Apple are in sunny California rather than rainy Seattle.
Ironically, the inaccurate cheerful folks had more confidence in their memories and judgements than did the depressed subjects. This led the researchers to warn that happy people may make lousy witnesses at judicial proceedings. (Of course, it’s an easy fix. Just require all witnesses to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf right before the trial.)
Forgas says that, “The finding makes sense in evolutionary terms. Animals that are wary of their environment are more likely to perceive threats to their survival. This supports the idea that mood states are evolutionary signals about how to deal with threatening situations. That is, a negative mood state triggers more systematic, more attentive, more vigilant information processing. By contrast, good moods signal a benign, non-threatening environment where we don’t need to be so vigilant.” It’s interesting that the relaxed mind tends to embellish and create stories, while the vigilant mind simply recounts facts. Could it be that when we feel happy, the right brain functions more actively and clouds the logical left brain?
In any event, the findings converted the researchers over to the “grumpy is good” school of thought. “Positive mood is not universally desirable: people in a negative mood are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eyewitness distortions and are better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages,” the report said. Now that we know the truth, it’s easy to see that the campaign slogan for the next Presidential election will not be the upbeat, “Change you can believe in.” Instead we can look forward to something more along the lines of, “Depressed and loving it.”
But before you turn on the evening news to induce despondency, know that being glum isn’t all good. In fact, plenty of studies show that depression takes a huge toll on your health, and it can even shorten your life. So choose your fate carefully: healthy, happy, and a bit dull-headed…or wretched, ailing, and sharp as a saber.