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Let’s Talk About Your Feelings: They Change How You See the World

Have you ever been so stressed about an upcoming assignment that it’s all you can think about? Consumed with procrastination, you find yourself thinking about it while eating dinner with your friends—what were you talking about again? You were too busy thinking about your calculus midterm. If that doesn’t ring a bell, maybe this will: imagine relaxing in your home, making dinner, and watching television, when you see a cockroach scamper across your kitchen floor (eek!). If you’re like me, you would jump on the table and become all-consumed with how to get rid of the intruder. In your preoccupation, you severely burn the chicken you were cooking for dinner.

Our emotions are mentally taxing! (source)

While I can’t save your spoiled meal or ensure a good grade on your exam, I can explain the origins of the narrow-mindedness we experience when we are stressed or scared. Let’s talk about an idiom for a second. When you are stressed out, a cognitive psychologist might say that you “can’t see the forest for the trees.” In other words, you’ve become too focused on the details to see the bigger picture. You have a paper due tomorrow, but you spent all day deciding what font to use.

Which of the bottom figures looks more like the top one? If you said the left one, you are making the judgement based on local features. If you chose the right one, you are making the judgement based on global features.
Figure from Gasper and Clore (2002)

In 2002, Karen Gasper and Gerald Clore performed an experiment in which they analyzed how our mood affects how we see the world. In their study, participants were presented with different arrangements of triangles and squares and asked to compare them. Participants in good moods were more likely to judge similarity based on global features (seeing the forest) while participants in bad moods were more likely to judge similarity based on local features (seeing the trees). Negative emotions narrow our attentional focus—our feelings change how we attend to and interpret the world around us. But why?

First, let’s talk attention: what is it, and why is it important? Attention is a process that helps us address certain things in our environment while ignoring others. We can’t underestimate its importance. After all, it’s impossible to pay attention to everything at once! We constantly take in information from all five senses: sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. If we paid attention to all this information all the time, we would be overwhelmed and unable to focus on the task at hand. Imagine you are in a crowded room at a party. You are holding a conversation with your friend despite other conversations and loud music around you. Would you be able to tell me what dance move your crazy acquaintance is pulling across the room while also listening to your friend dish out that hot goss? Probably not. This is attention at work.

The cocktail party effect describes our remarkable ability to focus on a conversation in a chaotic environment.

For many of us, attention works so well that we don’t even need to think about tuning out distractions—so how do we know what to attend to and what to ignore? Several models attempt to break down attentional processes. However, in dealing with emotions and how they affect how we see our surroundings, I’d like to focus on the capacity model.

The key to the capacity model is that attention is a limited resource. In other words, our attention is like sharing a cake. You give one slice of cake to the music you’re listening to, a couple more slices to your roommate who’s talking loudly in the other room, a few more slices to your friends who are blowing up your phone with notifications, and suddenly you have no more slices leftover for your homework assignment that’s due tomorrow.

Several factors determine the amount of attention-cake you can devote to a given task. For one, people differ in their attentional capacities: some people have seven-layer wedding cakes and some of us have cupcakes. These individual factors even change day-to-day, depending on how much you can bake. For example, do you ever find yourself preoccupied because you are pet-sitting for your friend’s needy fish, so you are having a hard time focusing in class (Just me? Well maybe you’re party planning or need a tux for your friend’s impromptu wedding or something, you tell me)? Further, different types of tasks require different demands on our attention. Well-practiced tasks, for example, are often automatic and do not require much thought: when you are walking, you do not have to consciously remind yourself to put one foot in front of the other. A difficult or novel task, however, would require more attentional resources: when you are learning how to parallel park, you are painfully aware of your actions and surroundings. You might even turn the radio off so you can focus! By reducing such distractions, you can devote more attention to squeezing into that tight spot.

So that’s all well and good, but how does all of this relate to our emotions? Just as difficult tasks require more attention, some types of emotions do, too. Let’s step out of the lab for a second. Have you ever been at work and had your boss lash out at you, or act strangely because they were in a bad mood? Turns out, that’s tied to attentional capacity. A 2015 study by Michael Collins and Chris Jackson found a link between emotional state, attention, and leadership tactics. Collins and Jackson found that negative emotions lead to destructive forms of leadership, such as when your boss forces you to do something their way, even when your way works just as well. Collins and Jackson describe emotional regulation as a task that requires attentional capacity. In other words, we avoid having an angry outburst at someone tapping their pen on the table because our brain puts in the effort to come up with a better solution, like telling them calmly to stop. Collins and Jackson theorize, then, that negative emotions occupy more attention than positive ones, leaving little leftover for emotional regulation. Next time your boss lashes out at you…maybe they were just in a bad mood.

Negative emotions, in limiting our attentional capacities for other important cognitive tasks, can have drastic consequences—they can shrink our field of view. When we are feeling sad, we literally see less of the world around us. A 2009 study by Taylor Schmitz, Eva De Rosa, and Adam Anderson used brain scanning technology to analyze this relationship. The researchers found evidence that people in positive moods saw more of a picture than people in negative moods. For example, participants in good moods showed evidence of processing what was in the background of presented images, whereas participants in negative moods did not.

Negative emotions affect how we see and interact with the world (source, additions by author)

Okay, so negative emotions limit our attentional capacities and thereby narrow our fields of vision. What does this mean in the real world? Let’s take your car for a spin. What happens if you’re in a bad mood while you’re driving? Well, let’s look at it through a multitasking lens. Just like a secondary task, our emotions tax our attentional capacity—especially negative ones. Researchers David Strayer, Jason Watson, and Frank Drews studied the effects of cell phone use while driving. As with negative emotions, they found that cell phone use decreased drivers’ field of view and awareness of their surroundings—pretty scary stuff. Our emotions can have real-world, dangerous consequences.

Be careful with carpool karaoke, it may take your attention away from the road. (iStock Photos)

So, what are you supposed to do about it? Make sure to be happy when you get in the driver’s seat? Not necessarily: turns out being in a good mood could be just as dangerous. Christelle Pêcher, Céline Lemercier, and Jean-Marie Cellier examined drivers’ behavior when listening to different types of music—happy, sad, and neutral. People listening to sad music were surprisingly safe drivers. Happy music listeners were far more reckless, exhibiting a marked decrease in driving speed, and swerved closer to the shoulder. Happy music listeners reported that the music was distracting, finding themselves wanting to dance or participate in some carpool karaoke—the music drew their attention away from the road.

Let’s review what we know: emotions and attention are interconnected. Negative emotions tax our attentional capacity, narrowing our focus and field of view. In other words, when we are sad, we tend to see the trees, not the forest. This attentional effort limits our ability to perform other tasks, such as emotional regulation. It’s harder to avoid lashing out at someone when you’re in a bad mood. In driving, negative moods can be dangerous, but positive moods can be scary, too, as they may lead to more reckless behavior.

What’s there to do, then? I hate to say it, but not much. Hopefully, this brief tour around emotions and attention has at least given you some insight as to why your boss forced you to go to the kitchen and put all the mugs in rainbow order (even though that’s not your job). Emotions do not only affect your attention. For one, emotions have been shown to have an incredible impact on memory. So, at the very least, I hope you go back into the world feeling a little more conscious of your emotions and how they affect how you perceive your surroundings.

References

Collins, M. D., & Jackson, C. J. (2015). A process model of self-regulation and leadership: How attentional resource capacity and negative emotions influence constructive and destructive leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 26(3), 386–401. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2015.02.005

Gasper, K., & Clore, G. L. (2002). Attending to the big picture: Mood and global versus local processing of visual information. Psychological Science, 13(1), 34–40. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00406

Pêcher, C., Lemercier, C., & Cellier, J.-M. (2009). Emotions drive attention: Effects on driver’s behaviour. Safety Science, 47(9), 1254–1259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2009.03.011

Schmitz, T. W., De Rosa, E., & Anderson, A. K. (2009). Opposing influences of Affective State Valence on visual cortical encoding. Journal of Neuroscience, 29(22), 7199–7207. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.5387-08.2009 

Strayer, D. L., Watson, J. M., & Drews, F. A. (2011). Cognitive distraction while multitasking in the automobile. Advances in Research and Theory, 29–58. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-385527-5.00002-4

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