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

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Participants. Ninety-three undergraduate students at the University of Chicago (45 women, 48 men), who indicated that they were regular consumers of caffeine and consumed at least one serving of coffee, tea, or caffeinated soda daily, participated in this study in return for monetary compensation.

Procedure. This study employed a 2 (mood: happy vs. neutral)  2 (goal: health improvement vs. mood management) between-subject design. The dependent variables were amount of time spent recalling information from an essay on caffeine consumption and the number of items recalled. The study was conducted on computers and comprised three supposedly unrelated tasks.

The first task primed the goal of health improvement or mood management. Participants completed a “verbal reasoning task” that involved unscrambling eight sets of words into sentences. Participants read that the task was a pretest, and the researchers needed to know whether the sentences were too difficult. They received either eight health-related sentences (e.g., “fitness is a virtue”) or eight mood-related sentences (e.g., “happiness is a virtue”) to unscramble; these were similar to those in Study 3.

Next, participants completed a mood induction survey. Those in the positive mood condition read that their task is to pretest a “funny thoughts” survey. They rated how funny (1 = not at all, 7 = very) each of seven statements was (e.g., “If Fed Ex and UPS were to merge, should they call it Fed UP?” “Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?”). The rest of the participants, in the neutral mood condition, read that their task is to pretest a general-knowledge survey. They rated how relevant (1 = not at all, 7 = very) each of seven statements was for a general-knowledge quiz (e.g., “How many states are there in the United States?” “Which President is called ‘The father of our country’?”). We adopted this mood manipulation from previous studies and it has been shown to affect people’s mood reliably (Zhang & Fishbach, 2005).

Participants then moved on to the third task, which assessed their attention to negative information. They read an essay on caffeine consumption that was adopted from research by Raghunathan and Trope (2002). The essay presented some negative aspects of caffeine consumption (e.g., “Caffeine can lead to a skin condition known as desiccation, which is essentially excessive drying of the skin tissue. This results in accelerated aging of skin, formation of scales and wrinkles, etc., resulting in an older look.”). After participants read the essay, they answered several filler questions (e.g., “How well was the essay written?”); then, they recalled as many of the pieces of information as they could remember. Specifically, we asked them to recall all of the aspects of caffeine consumption we presented in the essay. We also recorded the time each participant spent recalling the information. After they completed the recall task, participants were debriefed and dismissed. None of the participants identified the relationships among the different tasks.

Results and Discussion

We conducted two separate analyses, one on the time participants spent retrieving the information about caffeine consumption and the other on the number of recalled items from the essay on the negative health effects of caffeine consumption. The results are summarized in Figure 4. A 2 (mood: positive vs. neutral)  2 (goal: health improvement vs. mood management) ANOVA on the time participants spent recalling information from the essay revealed a main effect of goal, F(1, 89) = 5.21, p < .03, indicating that participants spent more time retrieving information when primed with health concerns than when primed with mood concerns (M = 106.32 s, SD = 54.99 vs. M = 82.58 s, SD = 43.22). Importantly, this effect was qualified by the predicted interaction between mood and goal, F(1, 89) = 4.19, p < .05.3 Planned contrasts designed to investigate the source of this interaction revealed that when primed with the health improvement goal, happy participants spent more time retrieving the information than did those in neutral mood (M = 121.96 sec, SD = 64.43 vs. M = 88.56 sec, SD = 35.26), t(89) = 2.36, p < .05. However, when primed with the mood management goal, participants in a positive mood spent no more (and slightly less) time looking at the information than did those in neutral mood condition (M = 78.28 sec, SD = 46.31 vs. M = 86.19 sec, SD = 41.04), t(89) < 1.

Next, we analyzed the total number of pieces of information participants recalled correctly. An ANOVA conducted on the number of recalled items yielded the predicted mood  goal interaction, F(1, 88) = 4.00, p < .05, and the main effects were not significant. As expected, when priming health improvement, happy participants recalled marginally more pieces of information than did those in a neutral mood (M = 6.08, SD = 1.38 vs. M = 5.18, SD = 1.89), t(88) = 1.76, p = .08. However, when priming mood management, participants in a positive mood recalled no more and even slightly fewer pieces of information than did those in a neutral mood (M = 4.75, SD = 1.99 vs. M = 5.32, SD = 1.74), t(88) = 1.25, ns. Additional analysis indicated that the amount of time participants spent retrieving negative information was significantly correlated with the number of arguments they recalled (r = .30, p < .01).

This study primed goals before mood was induced. In line with our hypothesis, participants in a positive mood were more likely to adhere to an accessible goal of health improvement by recalling negative health information, but they deter from negative information when mood management goal was primed. This pattern of results is congruent with our hypothesis that happy people are more likely to adopt goals and pursue them when they have the opportunity to engage in related actions, which in turn contributes to self-control success. However, so far our studies have compared happy and unhappy participants or happy and neutral participants. We designed Study 5 to compare happy, neutral, and unhappy moods.

Study 5: Performance on a Challenging Test

Study 5 explored the effect of positive mood on pursuing a difficult task by presenting participants with an opportunity to work on a cognitive test that was difficult but had long-term diagnostic value. Specifically, this study measured performance on the moderately difficult version of the Remote Associates Test (Mednick, Mednick, & Mednick, 1964), which is a creativity test that has been associated with improved performance by participants in positive mood (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987; Isen, Labroo, & Durlach, 2004; Wyer, Clore, & Isbell, 1999). It has been suggested that this improved performance is due to happy people’s global processing style (Schwarz, 1990; Schwarz & Clore, 2003). However, the “appropriate” cognitive style might not be sufficient if a person does not have the motivation. Accordingly, we predicted that when a test is framed as emotionally draining, happy (vs. neutral or unhappy) participants would perform better only to the extent that they hold an accessible self-improvement goal, but they would not perform better if they hold a mood management goal.

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