Identifying the source of negative emotions greatly reduces their influence on unrelated decisions

People who feel sad or anxious without knowing the source of their sulkiness will let negative feelings affect their decision-making on unrelated issues. However, a groundbreaking new study in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research reveals a surprisingly simple way to combat the rule of bad feelings: identify the source of the negative emotion.

"When we do not know the cause of our negative states referred to as mood states by psychologists--we use the moods themselves as information about our environment," explain Rajagopal Raghunathan (University of Texas at Austin), Michel Pham (Columbia University) and Kim Corfman (New York University).

The authors demonstrated this effect by putting subjects into a sad, anxious, or neutral mood, then having them make choices that were unrelated to the source of their feelings. While both anxiety and sadness exerted a strong influence over decision-making, different types of negative emotions encouraged different choices.

"While anxiety triggers a preference for options that are safer and provide a sense of control, sadness triggers a preference for options that are more rewarding and comforting," write the authors.

Even when the subjects had identified the cause of their sadness or anxiety, however, decisions moderately and superficially related to that cause were still affected by the negative emotions. The authors term this "displaced coping," and their study is the first to distinguish this phenomenon from more tangential effects of negative emotion.

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Rajagopal Raghunathan, Michel T. Pham, and Kim P. Corfman. "Informational Properties of Anxiety and Sadness, and Displaced Coping." Journal of Consumer Research. March 2006.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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