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Affect Influences Cognition

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

There is abundant evidence that our social cognition is strongly influenced by our affective states. For example, whatever current mood we are experiencing can influence our judgments of people we meet. Think back to a time when you were in a positive mood when you were introduced to someone new versus a time you were in a negative mood. The chances are that you made more positive evaluations than you did when you met a person when you were feeling bad (Clore, Schwarz, & Conway, 1993). Don’t new places also often seem better when you visit them in a good mood? The influences of mood on our social cognition even seem to extend to our judgments about ideas, with positive mood linked to more positive appraisals than neutral mood (Garcia-Marques, Mackie, Claypool & Garcia-Marques, 2004). Positive moods may even help to reduce negative feelings toward others. For example, Ito, Chiao, Devine, Lorig, and Cacioppo (2006) found that people who were smiling were also less prejudiced.

Mood states are also powerful determinants of our current judgments about our well-being. Norbert Schwarz and Gerald Clore (1983) called participants on the telephone, pretending that they were researchers from a different city conducting a survey. Furthermore, they varied the day on which they made the calls, such that some of the participants were interviewed on sunny days and some were interviewed on rainy days. During the course of the interview, the participants were asked to report on their current mood states and also on their general well-being. Schwarz and Clore found that the participants reported better moods and greater well-being on sunny days than they did on rainy days.

Schwarz and Clore wondered whether people were using their current mood (“I feel good today”) to determine how they felt about their life overall. To test this idea, they simply asked half of their respondents about the local weather conditions at the beginning of the interview. The idea was to subtly focus these participants on the fact that the weather might be influencing their mood states. They found that as soon as they did this, although mood states were still influenced by the weather, the weather no longer influenced perceptions of well-being (Figure 2.17). When the participants were aware that their moods might have been influenced by the weather, they realized that the moods were not informative about their overall well-being, and so they no longer used this information. Similar effects have been found for mood that is induced by music or other sources (Keltner, Locke, & Audrain, 1993; Savitsky, Medvec, Charlton, & Gilovich, 1998).

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Figure 2.17 Mood as Information  
The current weather influences people’s judgments of their well-being, but only when they are not aware that it might be doing so. After Schwarz and Clore (1983) 

Even moods that are created very subtly can have effects on our social judgments. Fritz Strack and his colleagues (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988) had participants rate how funny cartoons were while holding a writing pen in their mouth such that it forced them either to use muscles that are associated with smiling or to use muscles that are associated with frowning (Figure 2.18). They found that participants rated the cartoons as funnier when the pen created muscle contractions that are normally used for smiling rather than frowning. And Stepper and Strack (1993) found that people interpreted events more positively when they were sitting in an upright position rather than a slumped position. Even finding a coin in a pay phone or being offered some milk and cookies is enough to put people in a good mood and to make them rate their surroundings more positively (Clark & Isen, 1982; Isen & Levin, 1972; Isen, Shalker, Clark, & Karp, 1978).

Figure 2.18 Facial Expression and Mood 
The position of our mouth muscles can influence our mood states and our social judgments (Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988). 

We have seen many ways in which our current mood can help to shape our social cognition. There are many possible mechanisms that can help to explain this influence, but one concept seems particularly relevant here. The affect heuristic describes a tendency to rely on automatically occurring affective responses to stimuli to guide our judgments of them. For example, we judge a particular product to be the best option because we experience a very favorable affective response to its packaging, or we choose to hire a new staff member because we like her or him better than the other candidates. Empirically, the affect heuristic has been shown to influence a wide range of social judgments and behaviors (Kahneman, 2011; Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2002). Kahneman (2003) has gone so far as to say that The idea of an affect heuristic…is probably the most important development in the study of…heuristics in the past few decades. There is compelling evidence for the proposition that every stimulus evokes an affective evaluation, which is not always conscious…. (p. 710)

Given the power of the affect heuristic to influence our judgments, it is useful to explore why it is so strong. As with other heuristics, Kahneman and Frederick (2002) proposed that the affect heuristic works by a process called attribute substitution, which happens without conscious awareness. According to this theory, when somebody makes a judgment about a target attribute that is very complex to calculate, for example, the overall suitability of a candidate for a job, that person tends to substitute these calculations for an easier heuristic attribute, for example, the likeability of a candidate. In effect, we deal with cognitively difficult social judgments by replacing them with easier ones, without being aware of this happening. To return to our choice of job applicant, rather than trying to reach a judgment based on the complex question of which candidate would be the best one to select, given their past experiences, future potential, the demands of the position, the organizational culture, and so on, we choose to base it on the much simpler question of which candidate do we like the most. In this way, people often do hire the candidates they like the best, and, not coincidentally, also those who tend to be more similar to themselves (Rivera, 2012).

So far, we have seen some of the many ways that our affective states can directly influence our social judgments. There are other, more indirect means by which this can happen, too. As well as affecting the content of our social judgments, our moods can also affect the types of cognitive strategies that we use to make them. Our current mood, either positive or negative, can, for instance, influence our tendency to use more automatic versus controlled thinking about our social worlds. For example, there is some evidence that being in a happy, as opposed to a neutral, mood can actually make people more likely to rely on cognitive heuristics than on more effortful strategies (Ruder & Bless, 2003). There are also indications that experiencing certain negative affective states, for example anger, can cause individuals to make more stereotypical judgments of others, compared with individuals who are in a neutral mood (Bodenhausen, Sheppard, & Kramer, 1994). So, being in particular affective states may further increase the likelihood of us relying on heuristics, and these processes, as we have already seen, have big effects on our social judgments.

Affect may also influence our social judgments indirectly by influencing the type of information that we draw on. Our mood can, for example, affect both the type and intensity of our schemas that are active in particular situations. For instance, when in an angry mood, we may find that our schemas relating to that emotion are more active than those relating to other affective states, and these schemas will in turn influence our social judgments (Lomax & Lam, 2011). In addition to influencing our schemas, our mood can also cause us to retrieve particular types of memories that we then use to guide our social judgments. Mood-dependent memory describes a tendency to better remember information when our current mood matches the mood we were in when we encoded that information. For example, if we originally learned the information while experiencing positive affect, we will tend to find it easier to retrieve and then use if we are currently also in a good mood. Similarly, mood congruence effects occur when we are more able to retrieve memories that match our current mood. Have you ever noticed, for example, that when you are feeling sad, that sad memories seem to come more readily to mind than happy ones?

So, our affective states can influence our social cognition in multiple ways, but what about situations where our cognition influences our mood? Here, too, we find some interesting relationships.