How Mood Affects Self-Control Be Better or Be Merry: How Mood Affects Self-Control

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Be Better or Be Merry: How Mood Affects Self-Control

Ayelet Fishbach and Aparna A. Labroo

University of Chicago

Authors’ names appear in alphabetical order. Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Ayelet Fishbach or Aparna A. Labroo, The University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business, 5807 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago IL 60637. Electronic mail may be sent to or


Six studies test whether the effect of mood on self-control success depends on a person’s accessible goal. Positive mood signals a person to adopt an accessible goal, whereas negative mood signals a person to reject an accessible goal; therefore, if self-improvement goal is accessible, happy (vs. neutral or unhappy) people perform better on self-control tasks that further that goal. Conversely, if mood management goal is accessible, happy people abstain from self- control tasks because the tasks are incompatible with this goal. This pattern receives consistent support across several self-control tasks, including donating to charity, physical endurance, seeking negative feedback, and completing tests.

Keywords: self-control, self-regulation, mood, accessibility, goals

Research on self-regulation has documented the affective consequences of motivation (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1998; Ferguson & Bargh, 2004; Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998; Higgins, 1997). For example, goal attainment is marked by positive affect, and goal failure is marked by negative affect. However, the literature is less clear about the effect of affective states on motivation, especially on motivation toward tasks that involve exercising self-control (cf. Giner-Sorolla, 2001; Leith & Baumeister, 1996). That is, it is unclear under what circumstances happy people will be motivated to engage in self-control activities, which characteristically provide long-term self-improvement benefits but also pose an immediate threat to positive mood. For example, when people feel happy (vs. neutral or unhappy), are they more or less likely to participate in a charity campaign that involves paying attention to negatively-valenced information (e.g., sad stories, disturbing images)? Are happy people more or less likely to pursue tasks that are difficult and physically draining (e.g., exercising)?

A self-control conflict occurs when the attainment of long-term interests comes at the expense of negative short-term outcomes (Dhar & Wertenbroch, 2000; Fishbach, Friedman & Kruglanski, 2003; Fishbach & Trope, 2005; Loewenstein, 1996; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999; Thaler & Shefrin, 1981). Such self-control conflicts often emerge when a long-term goal of improving oneself conflicts with a short-term, although equally powerful, goal of feeling good at the moment. For example, students experience a self-control conflict when they must study uninteresting texts for long hours to attain academic success. Previous literature poses an apparent contradiction in addressing the effect of positive (vs. neutral or negative) mood on self-control success. On the one hand, positive mood is often viewed as the ultimate goal of people’s actions (e.g., Diener, 2000; Gilbert et al., 1998), and positive feelings signal goal attainment (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Higgins, 1997; Hsee & Abelson, 1991). Thus, feeling good is not expected to promote further actions, especially if these actions can impair a person’s positive mood (Handley, Lassiter, Nickell, & Herchenroeder, 2004; Wegener & Petty, 2001). On the other hand, there is also research attesting that people use positive mood in the pursuit of long-term goals (Aspinwall, 1998; Raghunathan & Trope, 2002; Trope & Neter, 1994); based on this research, happy people should be more interested in actions that promote self-improvement goals, even if such actions involve sacrificing immediate mood. Because of these disparate findings, it is unclear when (and whether) positive mood will interfere with self-control rather than contribute to a person’s success.

We propose that the exercise of self-control by happy versus unhappy people depends on whichever goal—self-improvement or mood management—is accessible. Positive mood promotes a general tendency to adopt goal states, whereas negative mood promotes a general tendency to reject goal states. Consequently, happy (vs. neutral or unhappy) people are expected to invest more self-control efforts when a self-improvement goal is accessible, but they are also expected to abstain from exercising self-control when a goal to maintain a positive mood is accessible. For example, when happy (vs. unhappy) people hold an accessible self-improvement goal, they will increase their donations to a charity, even if this action involves exposure to unpleasant materials, but they will not increase donations when they hold an accessible mood management goal, because such a task has immediate affective costs and conflicts with the goal.

In what follows, we review previous research on goals and mood that leads to our prediction that happy mood facilitates adherence to accessible goals, which affects self-control success. We then present six empirical studies that test for the effect of positive (vs. neutral or negative) mood on increased efforts on self-improvement tasks when self-improvement goals are cued and decreased efforts on these tasks when mood management goals are cued.

Goal Activation and Goal Pursuit

Goals are abstract structures in memory that can become accessible through contextual cues and guide behavior toward the attainment of these goal states and away from non–goal states (Higgins, 1987; Kruglanski, 1996). Whereas many ongoing personal goals (e.g., helping others, keeping in shape) involve explicit consideration and action planning (Gollwitzer, 1999; Locke & Latham, 1990), recent research indicates that goals often become accessible and promote congruent behaviors without conscious consideration. Such automatic effects of goals on actions occur when contextual cues temporarily increase the accessibility of goal representations, which then guide people’s choice of actions without involving conscious planning (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000; Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Troetschel, 2001; Gollwitzer, Bayer, & McCulloch, 2005; Kruglanski et al., 2002). For example, presenting words related to achievement motivation in a word puzzle task was shown to increase subsequent performance on an achievement test, although research participants were unaware of the source of their motivation (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Srull & Wyer, 1979).

Despite a growing number of studies on automaticity in goal-directed behavior, some recent studies have also indicated that contextually primed goals may not influence people’s choice of actions when there are obstacles to pursuing these actions (e.g., when the actions require overcoming competing motivations and the exercise of self-control). For example, Macrae and Johnston (1998) found that priming helping behavior increased altruistic actions only when there was no immediate cost associated with helping. However, priming helping behavior was ineffective when it was more costly to provide the help, for example, when participants primed with helping behavior helped an experimenter pick up dropped pens that were messy and leaking ink, as opposed to clean. Being helpful in the former situation involved exercising self-control and doing something unpleasant in the short run (getting dirty, feeling unpleasant) in the interest of self-improvement and becoming a better person in the long run. In general, when goal attainment requires the overcoming of competing motives and the exercise of self-control, contextual cues for an overriding goal might not be enough to promote action. In such situations, positive mood may increase people’s adherence to accessible goals.

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