A Happy Writer Is a Lousy Writer?
How bad moods make us careful.
Like so many writing teachers, I've been told I sometimes drive my students to depression or binge-drinking. Once, an online student who was about to meet me in person told a colleague that she needed to "face her fear"-that face of fear being yours truly. Yes, I can be that delightful.
Well, maybe my reign of misery isn't all bad: It turns out that "low-intensity" negative moods are linked to better writing than happy moods. As shown in the research of University of New South Wales Psychology Professor Joe Forgas, when we're not walking on clouds or doing a happy dance, we tend to be more careful and mindful of details.
Forgas has worked extensively on the effects of mood, and his most in-depth work with writing was described in the 2006 article "When sad is better than happy: Negative affect can improve the quality and effectiveness of persuasive messages and social influence strategies." In one experiment, Forgas's guinea pigs-humans, in this case-watched either a comedy or a film on cancer before being asked to write persuasively. Others wrote emails after a similar "mood induction." In all cases, the sad folks produced arguments that were more concrete and therefore more persuasive than the happy campers. Just by being in a bad mood, Forgas's subjects unconsciously followed the advice I constantly give students: "Details matter," "Give me an example," "Back up what you're saying," and "Be more specific."
Writing is just the tip of the mood-berg for Forgas, who recently gave a broad overview of his work in an article for Australian Science called "Think Negative! Can a bad mood make us think more clearly?" He found that people in a negative mood have a better bullshit detector when it came to urban legends, false trivia statements, and even the sincerity of facial expressions. They are more reliable eyewitnesses. They even overcome stereotypes better, as Forgas found in a disturbing yet revealing test, which revealed that those in a good mood had "...a significantly greater tendency overall to shoot at Muslims rather than non-Muslims... Conversely, negative mood reduced stereotype-based aggressive responses to Muslims." Of course, no real shooting was involved, but those results are alarming: Being happy really does seem to make us dumb and dangerous.
One huge disclaimer: A "slightly negative mood" produced sharper thinking than a happy mood, but there's no evidence to suggest that a really awful mood might do the same. Watching a sad movie with your spouse might do the trick; being left by your spouse probably would not. As Forgas said by email, "...we were basically producing mild negative moods, the kind of feeling state people have after watching 10 minutes of a sad movie, or learning that they did less well than they hoped on a test, or thinking about a sad episode in the past. The moods are mild and temporary, just the kinds of mood fluctuations people experience in everyday life. More intense or enduring negative moods may well have more debilitating effects."
So why do crappy moods have such un-crappy consequences? Forgas said, "The most likely explanation is based on evolutionary theorising-affective states serve an adaptive purpose, subconsciously alerting us to apply the most useful information processing strategy to the task at hand. A negative mood is like an alarm signal, indicating that the situation is problematic, and requires more attentive, careful and vigilant processing-hence the greater attention to concrete information."
I asked Forgas if there's anything people can do when they feel the effects of affect surging through their mood ring. He said, "Direct conscious attempts to change/control moods usually do not work well-otherwise we would presumably be happy all the time, which is clearly not the case... The effects we found occur without people being aware of them, and as you note, instructions to control these effects are not very effective."
That makes me kind of sad. Well, all the better for this column. As Dennis Baron wrote on his Web of Language site about Forgas's work: "It isn't surprising to discover that in order to improve, writers first have to become more unhappy. After all, lemons make great lemonade, and the literary canon is full of authors who are depressed."
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