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Bad mood encourages critical thinking

After a funny movie, we tend to believe good faith and believe the wrong information.

If you want to check something critically, it is best to do it in a bad mood. Because the more distressed the emotional state, the more gullible and susceptible we are to manipulation. That is what the Hungarian-born Joseph Paul Forgas of the University of New South Wales in Sydney warns after numerous experiments.

For many years, the social psychologist has been investigating how mood affects information processing in various situations. Together with Alex Koch from the University of Cologne, he presented witty or depressing short films to test subjects, followed by a series of false assertions, such as "The highest tree in the world is a spruce". After sad films, the participants were less influenced by statements presented in an advertising manner rather than emotionally neutral or positive films. In similar experiments, negatively tuned testers discovered more ambiguous formulations and interpreted less into nonsensical sentences.

Such effects did not only occur in the laboratory. During a lecture, Forgas and his colleagues once staged an incident in which the lecturer was apparently attacked by a woman. When the students were questioned a week later as witnesses, their memories could not easily be manipulated with false information if they had seen a sad short film before.

"Positive and negative moods trigger qualitatively different strategies of information processing," explains the social psychologist. If the mood is negative, we would pay more attention to details and facts; if the mood is good, we would think more creatively and experience-based. Thus good mood promotes above all creative and social activities, and bad tendency proves itself as advantageous, if one would like to look at something more closely.

With his research, Forgas wants to counteract the widespread attraction towards pleasant feelings. Knowing how they pave the way for naive judgements is practically relevant: "Nowadays, marketing, advertising and politics are constantly trying to exploit people's good faith and often resort to affective manipulation.

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