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«The Effect of Mood on the Perception of Neutral Stimuli Maria A. Corsaro University of Notre Dame EFFECT OF MOOD ON PERCEPTION OF NEUTRAL STIMULI 2 ...»

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The Effect of Mood on the Perception of Neutral Stimuli

Maria A. Corsaro

University of Notre Dame



The purpose of this study was to explore the relationship between a recently viewed video and

perception of emotionally neutral stimuli shortly thereafter. Watching emotional videos has been shown in previous research to alter the emotional state of the viewer. It was desired to determine whether this would also influence the participants’ perception of the emotional nature of stimuli would be more in line with the emotional content of the video that they had just seen. 150 people participated in this study. They were divided into three groups: one that watched a positive emotion movie, one that watched a negative emotion movie and one that watched a neutral movie. After viewing the videos, participants were shown several images that were rated as emotionally neutral and their ratings of the emotional content of the images were recorded.

This study found that watching an emotional video does significantly alter perception of the emotional content of the neutral images. These results provide insight into the way that people’s emotional states translate from one situation to another and how they can alter the way that people perceive certain situations.


The Effect of Mood on Perception of Neutral Stimuli Ekman (1980) describes emotions as innate, universal, or cross-cultural, and easily seen.

He also describes six universal emotions: happiness, surprise, anger, fear, sadness and disgust (Ekman, 1992). Of these six emotions, only surprise cannot be clearly labeled as positive (happiness) or negative (anger, fear, sadness, disgust) (Goren & Wilson, 2006). It is fairly common knowledge that emotions can be manipulated, particularly by specific situations (Moody, McIntosh, Mann, and Weisser, 2007). Can a person’s induced emotional state alter the perception of a neutral situation, though? Is there a difference in this perception when the subject is in an positive mood or an negative mood? The context in which one finds oneself can significantly alter how people will react in the situation (Aldao & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2012).

Emotions can be classified as either negative or positive and, there are many noted differences between them. The positive emotion is happiness. Anger, fear, sadness and disgust are the negative emotions. To begin with, positive and negative emotions are processed in separate regions of the brain (Goren & Wilson, 2006). The two most established emotion processing regions are the amygdala and insula, which interpret fear and disgust, respectively, both of which are negative emotions (Goren & Wilson, 2006). These innate differences in brain structure and function suggest an inherent discrepancy between processing of positive and negative emotions, potentially indicating that these two categories will influence the perception of a neutral situation in different ways.

Additionally, there are noticeable variations in the discernment of positive and negative emotions. In general, negative emotions are easier to recognize than positive emotions (Goren & Wilson, 2006). The emotion that is most easily distinguishable is fear (Goren & Wilson, 2006).

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mistaken for disgust, etc. (Goren & Wilson, 2006). While this could potentially artificially increase the difference between negative emotion and positive emotion recognition, there is still enough of a disparity between recognition of happiness and each negative emotion, that this would not reverse the trend noted earlier (Goren & Wilson, 2006). These observations suggest that negative emotions are more easily recognized and processed by observers, increasing the likelihood that they will have an impact on perception of a situation.

Detection of negative emotional stimuli occurs significantly faster with clinically depressed or anxious participants (Kanske & Kotz, 2012). These depressed or anxious people also orient their attention to these negative stimuli quicker and have a more difficult time extricating their attention from these stimuli (Kanske & Kotz, 2012). Processing of negative emotional stimuli is altered for these people, leading to an increased sensitivity towards these stimuli (Kanske & Kotz, 2012). This data shows that the perception of emotional stimuli are strongly incluenced by strong emotional states, such as depression and anxiety, demonstrating a correlation between general negative mood and effects related to negative emotional stimuli, specifically a fixation on such stimuli (Kanske & Kotz, 2012).

George Brown’s measure of Expressed Emotion (EE) from 1965 is designed to measure the quality of a care-giver’s attitude and ability to care for their patient (Kupiers, 1994). While the EE originally contained five scores on which care-givers were measured, three have been termed the most predictive of relapse, while two were deemed less significant and dropped from the EE. The three scales which are still used are critical comments, hostility and emotional overinvolvement, which are all related to negative emotional stimuli (Kupiers, 1994). The two scales that have been dropped from popular use are warmth and positive remarks, both positively

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It is interesting to note that the strongest predictors of increased symptomatology in the patients are all associated with negative emotional stimuli, similar to what was found with the depressed and anxious subjects from Kanske and Kotz’s study (2012). This suggests a strong link between mind set or mood and perceptual differences of the environment. Kanske and Kotz’s participants were frequently in a mood associated with negative emotions, hence their diagnosis of depression or generalized anxiety disorder. Patients whose care-givers score high in critical comments, hostility or emotional over-involvement are also living in an environment dominated by negatively emotional stimuli. There is a strong correlation between the situations in which these subjects and patients are living and their perception of and interaction with their environments. However, there is no experimental connection between these studies and the implied conclusion. No direction of causality can be inferred here. This is where this study proposes to pick up. By altering the mood of subjects that are not currently diagnosed with a mood disorder, it will become apparent whether the mood causes the participant to perceive the environment in these ways.

There are differences between positive and negative emotions in terms of memory and recall. In general, memory for emotional events, either positive or negative, is better than for neutral events (D’Argembeau & Van, 2005). Contextual details are more likely to be remembered, and with a greater degree of accuracy, for emotional events than for neutral events (Schmidt, Patnaik & Kensinger, 2011). One possible reason for this memory enhancement is that emotion can become a mnemonic device that is used to better encode the emotional memory, as compared to the neutral memory (Schmidt et al., 2011).

In particular, negative events and pictures usually have better accuracy when recalling the

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pictures (D’Argembeau & Van, 2005). Physiological differences are seen when a participant is looking at a negative picture, as opposed to neutral pictures (D’Argembeau & Van, 2005). This could aid in the better storage of the negative memories. Negative emotion also serves to enhance aspects of episode memory (D’Argembeau & Van, 2005). Schmidt et al. (2011) notes that negative valence of situations benefits contextual memory of the event and better recollection of specific details, such as thoughts or feelings during the event.

Positive emotions also aid in memory, especially when in high-arousal situations. With high-arousal pictures, or pictures that convey stronger emotions, positive emotions become more beneficial to memory than negative emotions (Schmidt et al., 2011). The largest memory advantage can be noted when studying high-arousal, positive items (Schmidt et al., 2011). It can also be observed that processing information with regards to oneself is particularly efficient for positive information, demonstrating another advantage of positive emotions with memory (Schmidt et al., 2011).

There are multiple theories why emotions act as such a strong mnemonic device for memories. Emotions allow for a clear advantage of these memories over neutral memories; they can be recalled after longer periods of time with more detailed recollection (D’Argambeau & Van, 2005). One of the more common theories which attempts to explain this phenomenon is that the degree of emotion during the event to be remembered allows for enhanced attention to and encoding of the event (D’Argembeau & Van, 2005). Emotion directs the executive control of attention to the event (Kanske & Kotz, 2012). This, in turn, allows for greater processing of the details and better memory creation of the event (Kanske & Kotz, 2012). It is also believed that higher arousal will improve the binding of details in the memory through an increase in

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(Schmidt et al., 2011). Negative pictures seem to capture attention more and for longer periods of time than positive or neutral images (D’Argembeau & Van, 2005). This causes the negative images to be encoded more distinctly and allows for greater recall of details later on (D’Argembeau & Van, 2005). This could also explain the correlation noticed earlier between the depressed and anxious subjects in Kanske and Kotz’s study and the patients whose care-givers were rated by the EE and the effect of a negative environment on their behavior. If negative stimuli seem to capture attention and be encoded more vividly, it makes sense that these subjects and patients would be so affected by their negative environments.

In the context of the current experiment, these differences in memory and recall for different emotional stimuli are important to be aware of, especially with respect to attention.

Participants in this experiment will not be asked to recall specific details of their emotioninducing experience. However, they will form memories of their experience which could influence their cognition and perception in later tasks of the experiment. Therefore, it is important to understand how these memories may be affected by the video which was watched, as this could potentially influence results of the current study.

In Moody and coworkers’ study (2007), subjects’ moods were successfully manipulated by having subjects listen to clips from soundtracks from specific movies. The lack of visual information during the manipulation in Moody et al.’s (2007) study was a noted limitation for that study. The current study will take this manipulation one step further by using clips with video and audio to increase manipulation of emotions and moods of subjects.

Showing video clips to participants is a common method used to manipulate participants’ emotions (Moody et al., 2007). Therefore, it is very important to know exactly what effects this

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This way, future experimenters will have a better idea of how this method will affect their subjects. In this experiment, participants’ moods will be manipulated, in order to measure the degree to which this manipulation method influences participants’ perception of and responses to later questions and stimuli. This will be done by measuring participants’ perception of the emotional content of neutral pictures. The amount of variation from a neutral rating will indicate the success of the mood manipulation and, in turn, the degree to which the manipulation affects perception in this scenario. By using a neutral stimulus to measure the manipulation effect, this will allow for a better baseline comparison.

Moody et al. (2007) studied Rapid Facial Reactions (RFRs), in normal and induced-fear settings (2007). RFRs are the subconscious mimicry of an observed facial expression, which often occurs subperceptually (Moody et al., 2007). RFRs are seen as a reflection of the observer’s emotional state, which might not necessarily be the same as the expression which they are observing (Moody et al., 2007). After the successful mood manipulation, subjects in Moody’s study were shown various facial stimuli which had been selected based on their emotional valence and arousal (2007). There were significant differences observed between the two groups’ RFRs when they were watching angry and fearful faces, both negative emotions (Moody et al., 2007). Participants’ RFRs did not directly match the facial stimuli which they were observing. Instead, they displayed context relevant expressions consistent with their emotional state and the significance of the stimuli which they had just seen (Moody et al., 2007).

Furthermore, subjects that were in the induced-fear condition had increased activity to fear faces, as compared to their control counterparts (Moody et al., 2007). While Moody et al. only had an induced-fear group, the current experiment will go further by having two experimental groups: a

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If participants’ ratings of neutral images significantly differ from the standard ratings provided by the IAPS, then it will be possible to verify the hypothesis that watching a movie that has a high emotional level, whether positive or negative, will impact how people will view an emotionally neutral situation, causing them to perceive a more positive emotional situation if they watched a positive emotion movie or a more negative emotional situation if they watched a negative emotion movie.

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Participants Participants were selected from the University of Notre Dame student body and surrounding area. Participants were contacted through advertisements and were offered either extra credit for their psychology class or ten dollars for their time. A total of 150 participants were used in this experiment. Ages ranged from 19 to 50. Of these participants, 72 were female.

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