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Don't Whistle While You Work

18 December 2006 (All day)
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Ryan McVay/Photodisc Green

Concentrating.
Feeling happy may increase chances of being distracted.

Does a good mood help when doing your job? Not always, a new study suggests. Happy thoughts can stimulate creativity, but for mundane work such as plowing through databases, being cranky or sad may work better. The study is the first to suggest that a positive frame of mind can have opposite effects on productivity depending on the nature of a task.

Stress, anxiety, and a bad mood are notorious for narrowing people's attention and making them both think and see only what's right in front of them; for example, a person held at gunpoint usually recalls nothing but the weapon itself. Well-being, on the other hand, is known to broaden people's thinking and make them more creative. But whether a good mood also expands people's attention to visual details was unknown.

To answer that question, psychologist Adam Anderson of the University of Toronto asked 24 university students to take two kinds of tests after listening to sad, happy, or neutral music. In one test, the students were asked to think of unusual words, thus testing them for the breadth of their thinking. As previously reported by various other researchers, those who has listened to the happy music--and who claimed to be in a better mood--were more successful in recalling unusual words than the other two groups.

In the second test, students were presented with a row of three letters and asked to ignore everything except for the letter in the middle. This measured the breadth of their visual attention and ability to focus on what was in front of them. This time, the happy-music students were 40% more likely to be distracted by the unnecessary flanking information than students who had listened to sad music were.

"Attention can act as a beam of spotlight," says Anderson. A good mood broadens that beam, he says, encompassing more things than we would see otherwise, and in some cases leads to more distractions. But when focused inward, the broader beam yields creativity, the team suggests in a paper in the December 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

"I like this study quite a bit," says cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Phelps of New York University. So does Jeremy Wolfe of Harvard Medical School in Boston. But, he cautions, "this is a modest manipulation of mood in a laboratory situation." Future studies should address the effects of mood variation "in more dramatic, real-life situations," he says.

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