Don’t Worry, Be Sad! On The Cognitive Benefits Of Negative Mood

Published by Joseph P. Forgas

School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia

These findings are described in the article entitled “Mood effects on ingratiation: Affective influences on producing and responding to ingratiating messages” from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Author’s Note: Support from the Australian Research Council is gratefully acknowledged. Please address all correspondence to Joseph P Forgas, at School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia; email [email protected]. For further information on this research program see also websites at and

What is the relationship between feeling and thinking, affect and cognition? This perennial problem has occupied writers and philosophers since time immemorial, but it is only in the last few decades that we started to explore the cognitive consequences of affective states empirically. Of course, human beings are an intensely moody species. It now appears that fluctuating mood states often serve as a helpful input informing our cognitive strategies, suggesting that negative mood is also a useful component of our affective repertoire.

Yet the often adaptive role of negative affect continues to be misunderstood. The human affective response system contains far more negative than positive affective states, and we have many more words to describe our negative rather than positive states. Evoking and experiencing negative affect is also a central feature of much artistic endeavor. Classical Greek tragedies, the dramas of Shakespeare, Chekhov or Ibsen, and most classical music systematically evoke and explore the landscape of sadness and contemplation.

Yet our own modern hedonistic culture is characterized by an often superficial devotion to positive affect. Hundreds of books on self-improvement promise us the unachievable: permanent bliss. Even though dysphoria has always been with us, its effects on thinking remain poorly understood. In several experiments, we found that inducing people into a mild negative mood produces a significant improvement in performance on a number of cognitive tasks that require more attentive information processing and greater concentration on the details of new information. We focused on the effects of mild, temporary moods rather than distinct and intense emotions, as moods are more common, more enduring and produce more uniform and reliable cognitive consequences than do more situationally specific emotions. Moods can be defined as low-intensity, diffuse, and relatively enduring affective states that do not have a salient antecedent cause and, therefore, provide little conscious cognitive content.

Moods have two kinds of effects on our thinking. First, they tend to selectively activate and prime mood-related concepts in memory, and these are more likely to be used in subsequent constructive cognitive tasks, producing a reliable mood-congruent bias. Several studies confirmed clear mood-congruent effects on memory, social judgments, and behavior. Paradoxically, as predicted by theories such as the Affect infusion Model, affect congruence in thinking is often magnified when longer, more open, and more constructive thinking is required to deal with a more demanding task.

Of more recent interest is the influence of affect on information processing strategies. Current theories suggest that different moods have an important adaptive function recruiting qualitatively different processing styles, subconsciously regulating the relative balance of top-down processes (in a positive mood), and bottom-up processes (in a negative mood). Positive mood signals that the environment is familiar or benign and so top-down, assimilative and creative processing is promoted relying more on pre-existing knowledge to respond to a situation. In contrast, negative mood signals a new or challenging situation and calls for a more attentive, externally focused thinking.

Recent evidence for the surprising processing benefits of negative mood includes studies indicating improved memory, more accurate judgments, and reduced gullibility in a negative mood. These experiments typically involve a two-stage procedure. In stage one, the participants’ mood state is manipulated in what they believe is an unrelated, separate task (for example, by viewing happy or sad films, listening to cheerful or depressing music, receiving positive or negative feedback, or remembering positive or negative episodes from the past). In stage two, cognitive performance on some memory, judgmental or associative task is assessed as a function of the previously induced mood.

The benefits of negative mood for memory were shown in a field experiment. When in a negative mood (on rainy, cold days) shoppers in a small suburban shop remembered significantly more incidental details about the interior of the shop they had just left, compared to shoppers in a more positive mood (on sunny, warm days), even though the time spent in the shop was controlled. Negative mood can also improve memory accuracy in eyewitness recall.

Several experiments found that negative mood participants were less likely to incorporate false, misleading details into their eyewitness memories than happy participants. In one experiment, participants witnessed an unexpected (staged) hostile altercation during a lecture. Subsequently, after a negative or positive mood induction, they were exposed to misleading information about the episode. The memories of those in a negative mood showed less contamination by the false details than those in a positive mood.

Negative mood also tends to improve judgmental accuracy in some situations. Many social judgments are biased by the pre-existing ideas, expectations and constructive distortions of the judge. For example, people often form quick judgments of others on early, unreliable information and disregard later diagnostic details (a so-called “primacy effect”). We found that such primacy effects tend to be greater in a positive mood, and tend to be reduced by negative mood, as slightly dysphoric judges appear to process the relevant information in a slightly more attentive and focused manner.

Another common judgmental bias is the halo effect. This occurs when judges rely on irrelevant information (for example, the physical appearance of a person) in judging unrelated qualities (for example, competence or intelligence), so a good-looking person might be judged as having more desirable qualities. In one experiment, we asked participants in a good or bad mood to form impressions about the quality of a short philosophical essay. The photo of the alleged “writer” was also attached, with half the participants seeing a respectable looking male, and the other half seeing the photo of a young, hippy-looking female. The photos had a significant influence on judgments, and this halo effect was magnified by positive mood, and reduced by a negative mood.

More attentive processing triggered by negative mood may also reduce the very common judgmental bias when people infer intentionality and ignore external situational pressures when evaluating the observed behavior of others (the so-called “fundamental attribution error”). In one experiment, we asked positive and negative mood judges to form impressions about the writer of an essay, when they knew that the essay topic was either freely chosen, or was assigned to the writer. Those in a positive mood were significantly more likely to succumb to the fundamental attribution error by making judgments on the basis of a coerced (and thus, not diagnostic) essay. Negative mood significantly reduced this tendency. Perhaps most interesting are recent findings suggesting that negative mood may act as a mental prophylactic, reducing credulity and gullibility. For example, when judging the likely truth of a number of urban myths and rumors, we found that those in a positive mood rated more easily processed information as also more likely to be true. However, negative mood significantly reduced reliance on this mental heuristic, consistent with a negative mood improving attention to actual stimulus details.

In a similar pattern, a negative mood may also improve people’s ability to detect deception. In one experiment we asked happy or sad participants to view a videotape of the interrogation of a person who was accused of theft and decide whether he/she was truthful. Those in a negative mood were significantly better at correctly detecting deceptive targets. Other evidence also shows that positive mood participants are more likely to accept both verbal and nonverbal social communication at face value as genuine, while those in a negative mood tend to be more skeptical.

Interestingly, a negative mood can also inhibit reliance on pre-existing expectations, such as stereotypes. In one experiment we asked participants in a positive or negative mood to play a game and shoot at targets but only when they carried a gun. Unbeknownst to the players, target ethnicity was also manipulated, so some targets did, and some did not appear Muslim (wearing or not wearing a turban). Players tended to shoot more at Muslims (consistent with a negative stereotype) — but negative affect actually reduced and positive affect increased this discriminative tendency, consistent with negative mood recruiting a more attentive processing style, resulting in closer attention to actual diagnostic stimulus features (such as carrying or not carrying a gun). Other work also suggests that generally, positive affect increases the reliance on stereotypes, but negative affect (and especially, sadness) tends to reduce or eliminate stereotypic biases.

These studies offer convergent evidence for the often adaptive, beneficial effects of mild negative affect for cognition and judgments. The findings are consistent with an evolutionary approach suggesting that all affective states — including especially the unpleasant ones — function as adaptive “mind modules,” producing functional benefits in some circumstances. These results also stand in stark contrast with the unilateral emphasis on the benefits of positive affect in popular culture. Perhaps it is time to recognize that permanent positive affect is neither possible nor universally desirable. The evidence shows that in many situations, negative affect may improve, and positive affect impairs people’s ability to monitor and adapt to demanding situational requirements. Applied and clinical professionals might well also benefit from an explicit recognition of the adaptive functions of negative affect.

Of course, intense, enduring or debilitating dysphoria as in depression offers no such benefits and does require treatment. Specific, intense emotions may also have very different consequences. Broadly speaking, these results suggest that the unrelenting pursuit of happiness and the political and commercial exploitation of such desires may often be self-defeating. We should accept that temporary states of dysphoria are a natural part of human functioning. A more balanced assessment of the costs and benefits of positive and negative affect is long overdue in professional practice and in popular culture as well.