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January 2011





Sandy Gautam

I have earlier written about the entrepreneurial roller-coaster and how when entrepreneurs are in a happy mood, they focus on long-term vision related creativity; while when they are in negative mood they focus on the task at hand. I had also tried to relate this to prevention and promotion focus and weave it in the narrative of preventive focus as depressive and promotion focus as being manic in nature.

Another bit of research extends the thesis and adds to our knowledge base. This new article by Winkielman et al suggest that people in sad mood tend to value familiarity whereas those in a happy mood are more open and welcoming of novelty.

Here is the abstract of the study:

People often prefer familiar stimuli, presumably because familiarity signals safety. This preference can occur with merely repeated old stimuli, but it is most robust with new but highly familiar rototypes of a known category (beauty-in-averageness effect). However, is familiarity always warm? Tuning accounts of mood hold that positive mood signals a safe environment, whereas negative mood signals an unsafe environment. Thus, the value of familiarity should depend on mood. We show that compared with a sad mood, a happy mood eliminates the preference for familiar stimuli, as shown in measures of self-reported liking and physiological measures of affect (electromyographic indicator of spontaneous smiling). The basic effect of exposure on preference and its modulation by mood were most robust for prototypes (category averages). All this occurs even though prototypes might be more familiar in a happy mood. We conclude that mood changes the hedonic implications of familiarity cues.

The authors reasoning is as follows:

Happy or sad mood signal the safety of the environment.

Much psychological research points out that one signal of environmental safety or danger is an individual’s mood (e.g., Clore, Schwarz, & Conway, 1994; Schwarz, 2002). Bad mood signals a problem, tuning individuals toward safety concerns, whereas good mood signals that an environment is benign. Tuning accounts assume that mood adjusts cognitive and affective reactions so that they best serve the individual in the specific context.

In a safe environment, one can experiment or value novelty. In an unsafe environmental it makes sense to stick to tried and proven things.

After all, familiarity is only a heuristic cue to safety. Thus, as with any heuristic cue, its validity and hedonic meaning vary by context (Hertwig, Herzog, Schooler, & Reimer, 2008). Specifically, the familiarity-positivity link should depend on whether individuals are tuned toward safety concerns. Familiarity should be valued in an unsafe environment, but less so in a benign environment (e.g., Bornstein, 1989). Analogously, in a strange city a familiar face elicits a warm glow, whereas locally the same face prompts a yawn. Numerous studies (and parents) have observed that in unsafe environments infants are neophobic, but in safe settings, they are less so (Shore, 1994). Similarly, in multiple species, stress increases neophobia, whereas comfort reduces it.

Thus they hypothesize that sad mood should lead to mare liking for familiarity while happy mood should lead to novelty preference. They do some clever experimentation and get exactly the same result.

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