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Is 2020 Making Us More Stupid?

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened fear, social isolation, and economic anxiety across many communities around the country.  In a recent survey of roughly 300 American workers, about 40% said they feel less productive than usual during the pandemic (Ducharme, 2020). College students, including those at Colby College, are not immune to similar feelings such as a lack of productivity, inability to pay attention, and an overall decrease in work performance. When talking to students at Colby College there is a general consensus that one’s ability to focus on one’s work has decreased in addition to overall cognitive performance. This general belief of decreased productivity and ability got me thinking about possible reasons for this widespread feeling. I began to wonder, “have students become lazier?”, “have Colby College students become less intelligent?”, or “have classes become harder?”. Logically thinking through these questions, I conclude a reasonable answer to these questions is “no” to all. But what could be driving these changes in cognitive performance across the Colby campus and beyond? Thinking back to my own peaks in academic performance, I think about the times in which I have seen the greatest success. Overall, I have found that my academic performance seems to be positively correlated with my level of happiness. These observations from the world of the pandemic, my own life, and the general trends on the Colby campus this year has led me to wonder, how do emotions affect one’s cognitive performance? Due to the magnitude of studies varying by different moods and cognitive processes, this blog will primarily focus on positive mood’s effects on learning and memory.

“Has the pandemic made your emotions are swinging back and forth constantly?” https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/m/mood_swings.asp


Feelings consume daily lives, yet we fail to fully recognize their impact on our cognitive functions. The mood can be described as a dispositional state and responses that last for several minutes or hours and fluctuating responses to changes in the way people understand their current situation (Mitchell & Phillips, 2007). While both positive and negative moods make us human, positive moods, fluctuated by good prospects or functions, are what motivate our behavior. We not only strive for positive emotions but in turn, these positive states can influence what we can actually achieve. It has been found that positive moods can promote the discovery of novel and creative actions, harbor ideas and social bonds, and thus aid in a person’s success. This broadened mindset is in direct contrast with the findings that negative emotions lead to narrowed mindsets (Fedrickson, 2004). Since positive emotions as a whole can help with new skills and knowledge, one can begin to wonder how positive emotions can directly impact academic performance. Throughout this blog, you will gain an understanding of the various research that has found positive moods can be linked to broadened cognition in a variety of characteristics that increase creativity (Isen et al., 1987), visual attentional expansion (Rowe et al., 2007), and beyond, which all impact academic success.

 A positive mood can facilitate a broader focus of attention and memory ability. For example, individuals in a positive state can recall more words than those in a negative state (Isen et al., 1978). From vocabulary tests in middle school to take the SAT vocabulary section to impress your professors in college and beyond, memorizing words and terms is essential. While we like to think of school as more than exams or tests, it would be foolish to disregard the importance of brute force memorization of core concepts, especially in introductory classes. But, what exactly allows people in positive moods to be able to have this added success in memorization? The ability to recall more words could be caused by a positive person’s tendency to process material in a more flexible way and thus see additional interconnections among various thoughts (Isen et al., 1978). Relative to individuals in a neutral control condition, individuals in a positive mood are also able to name more unusual associations between neutral words, use more inclusive categories as a whole, and thus increase the amount of information placed into a smaller subset of categories (Isen & Duabman, 1984). This memorization and organization process of placing information into already established groups, called chunking, has been found to help aid in the limits of our working memory capacity. When one is studying for an exam or test, one can use chunking to add context to help retrieve specific relative terms. Due to the limited capacity of short-term memory, when placed into chunks of information based on prior knowledge, new information becomes easier to retain and recall. People in positive moods have also been found to be better creative thinkers. Those placed in a positive effect have been found to break the normal route and see alternative features that aid inhttp://memory their problem solving (Isen et al., 1987). There is little doubt that creativity is essential for success in school. In pre-school, a majority of a kid’s time is spent with teachers exploring the inner workings of their imagination through dress up and painting. This focus extends into our high school and college careers as we spend most of our time having articulate discussions or writing papers in which novel perspectives are imperative. However, creativity also extends beyond academia’s walls into students’ success in their future workplace. A study conducted by IBM in 2010 found that over 1,500 executives valued creativity as the most crucial business skill in the modern world (IBM, 2010). In a working world where rote tasks are automatized, and almost all information is available with one click, students need to be ready to learn independently, constantly adapt, innovate, and creatively problem-solve in the workplace to succeed. 

“It feels like work places and college administrators dont understand that our unproductively is not due to lack of trying”. https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/p/personal_contentment.asp


In addition to increasing word recall and creativity, positive emotions can increase attention as a whole (Fedrickson, 2005). In order to understand, memorize, and recall this information, we must first pay attention to it. Attention allows you to “tune out” information, sensations, and perceptions that are not relevant at the moment and instead focus your energy on the information that actually is important. While having the ability to tune out irrelevant information is crucial in places where destructive students are bountiful, having the ability to widen our attention in a place where everything is testable is essential. When participants were asked to look at one central image and two peripheral images in various locations, those that were in a good mood changed the focus of their gaze more frequently and were able to pay more attention to the peripherally located images (Wadlngr & Isaacowitz, 2006). This demonstrates that people in positive moods are better able to broaden their scope of general attention, thus allowing more information to be processed. In summary, people in positive moods in comparison to those in a neutral state are able to offer more unusual cognitive associations, create and use more inclusive categories, recall larger numbers of words, and be overall better creative thinkers. These enhancements would suggest that positive moods as a whole broaden a person’s scope of cognition, and therefore can positively influence a person’s academic and work performance. 

While some studies have concluded that positive emotions produce many benefits, others present possible limitations to these perceived benefits. Broadened attention can come at a cost of higher distractibility (Dreisbach & Gischke, 2004) and a harder time ignoring irrelevant tasks (Rowe et al., 2007). Additionally, there has been finding that emotions only help with retrieving memory in certain cases. While there remains to be some controversy on the extent to the benefits of positive mood, its significant effects on creative problem solving, chunking ability, and attention demonstrates that positive emotions have the ability to positively influence academic performance. It may seem like you have become less smart during this pandemic, and I’m not going to tell you you haven’t, but you must also remember that you aren’t just a brain in a bag. You are not a machine, but a person with feelings, and therefore your emotions are going to impact your performance, for the better or for the worse. Just remember it may not be intelligence, it may be the mood you’re in.  


“How It Will Hopefully Feel After the Pandemic” https://www.freepik.com/premium-photo/group-happy-business-people-meeting-office_2549456.htm




Ducharme, J. (2020). How to Concentrate and Focus During the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://time.com/5878780/how-to-focus-covid-19-pandemic/. 

Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2004). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19(3), 313-332. doi:10.1080/02699930441000238

Mitchell, R. L. C., & Phillips, L. H. (2007). The psychological, neurochemical and functional neuroanatomical mediators of the effects of positive and negative mood on executive functions. Neuropsychologia, 45(4), 617-629. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.06.030

IBM. (2010). IBM 2010 Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success. https://www.ibm.com/news/ca/en/2010/05/20/v384864m81427w34.html.

Isen, A. M., Johnson, M. M. S., Mertz, E., & Robinson, G. F. (1985). The influence of positive affect on the unusualness of word associations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(6), 1413-1426. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.6.1413

Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122-1131. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.52.6.1122

Isen, A. M., Shalker, T. E., Clark, M., & Karp, L. (1978). Affect, accessibility of material in memory, and behavior: A cognitive loop? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(1), 1-12. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.36.1.1

Rowe, G., Hirsh, J. B., & Anderson, A. K. (2007). Positive affect increases the breadth of attentional selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 104(1), 383-388. doi:10.1073/pnas.0605198104

Wadlinger, H. A., & Isaacowitz, D. M. (2006). Positive mood broadens visual attention to positive stimuli. Motivation and Emotion, 30(1), 87-99. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9021-

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