Odd as it may sound, feeling good may simultaneously help and hurt our brainpower, at least according to a new study.
In a new paper in Cognition and Emotion, researchers found that a good mood (what psychologists call “positive affect”) translated into sharper analytical thinking, but at the risk of overconfidence. It’s the sort of finding that shows how emotions can be manipulated to maximize smarts—if you know what you’re doing.
In the first experiment, the research team of Yael Sidi and Rakefet Ackerman of the Israel Institute of Technology and Amir Erez of the University of Florida asked 54 undergraduates to view images proven to make viewers feel either happy or neutral. They then answered general knowledge questions, the “informativeness” of which was measured by how much the answer mirrored social norms. (If they were asked to give the age of the members of the Beatles, saying Paul McCartney was 100 would be outside the pale.) After each question, participants were then asked to rate their confidence in their answer.
Researchers found that those in the happy group scored higher in terms of overall success rate—which was calculated not only by getting answers right, but also efficiency (number of correct answers per minute) and response time (time between answering the first and last questions) — than the neutral group. They were also much more confident. While this seems like it would be the optimal mode, the overconfident actually answered questions that were further afield from social norms. The researchers inferred that this is because the confident participants had lower “metacognition,” or awareness of their own thoughts. It’s further evidence that metacognition is really a kind of social skill, a way of empathizing with how other people might evaluate you. So, while confidence is positive for a number of obvious reasons, it may also hamper our ability to judge our own ideas.
The social aspect of all this was explored in a follow-up experiment. The research team asked 54 different undergraduate students to do the same study with one exception: the questions would be asked by a “pseudo asker” in the form of a photo of a random person who would appear before the question. Adding the asker images eliminated the overconfidence found in the first experiment. This suggests that a little self-consciousness will reinforce social norms, as anyone who has mildly embarrassed him/herself at a party will tell you.
All this sheds light on why super confident people appear to not care about what other people think — they’ve possibly got less of an internalized social gaze policing their mental activity. The authors note that additional attention is needed on why confidence levels fell when participants faced the “question asker,” and they can’t be sure of why with this study design.
That’s the tricky tension with positive affect: feeling good helps to cultivate confidence, but can lead you astray if you become cocky. You wouldn’t want your newfound confidence to go to your head.