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Small fluctuations in emotional state can affect us in unexpected ways

Updated: Nov 2, 2019

I’ve been distracted from getting out this blog for the past two weeks. I knew what I wanted to write about, but a number of other activities have taken priority until I saw the photo posted with the blog. When I saw that on my way to view a potential new office space, I knew I had to get it done.

I’ve been mulling over the implications of an article I came across, while listening to a favorite podcast, “The Bullet Proof Musician”. The podcast is dedicated to sharing the latest research findings related to things like skill building and optimal task performance. Often the content referenced is not directly related to music, as in this case, but the author is adept at making connections between the abstract and the specific.

The study he referenced is titled “Blinded by Anger or Feeling the Love: How Emotions Influence Advice Taking” and was written by Francesca Gino and Maurice E. Schweitzer. The researchers are interested in the role of emotion in how individuals collaborate. In this study they wondered how emotions triggered by unrelated eventsmight influence accepting advice, and why that happens. Briefly, they had participants watch a few minutes of movie clips, some participants watched a movie clip depicting grave injustice (to induce anger), one depicting a bland natural scene (to induce a neutral emotional state) and one depicting human compassion (to induce gratitude). After watching the clips, they had participants judge the physical weight of several people (strangers) depicted in photographs. They then shared with the participants the judgment of an unknown other participant (not true, this was the experimental manipulation) and allowed them to change their weight estimate based on this new information. The estimate they were given was close, but not exact. Participants were also asked to rate how much they trusted the “other participant”. The results of their analysis indicated that: a) those feeling gratitude were the most accurate judges of weight, followed by the neutral group and then the anger group; b) the degree to which participants changed their estimate based on the additional information was similar in that those in the gratitude group changed their estimate the most, followed by the neutral group and then the anger group; and c) the level of trust was also determined by emotional state with the gratitude group giving the highest ratings of trust followed by the neutral group and then the anger group.

It’s impossible to dig into this article and evaluate the scientific quality and magnitude of knowledge gained in this blog. I’m more interested in using it as food for thought, given that having read it closely a couple of times and being very familiar with the methods they used I have confidence it’s worth mulling over.

The first thing that jumped out was that people actually estimated weight more accurately in a state of gratitude than a state of anger. Note that this wasn’t actually an aim of the study, they were interested in whether they took the “advice” or not. But it makes me wonder a lot about how my emotional state impacts the way I evaluate information I am taking in and decisions I am making. Particularly when I may not attribute my current mood to anything related to my current decision.

It’s not as surprising to me that those in a state of gratitude were more likely to accept the advice. Yet, when you consider how mild the induction of emotion would have been from watching a movie clip about something so entirely unrelated to the situation at hand it does make me pause. I like to think of myself as capable of compartmentalizing my emotion when I need to address something happening in the here-and-now. For instance, something at work may be annoying me, but I “put it aside” to engage with a family member; or vice versa.

My current take-away from thinking about the article is to weigh more heavily the need to get centered and attuned to my heart and mind when engaging in interactions or making decisions, and not just the big ones. I’m grateful that I have such powerful meditation tools in my repertoire that allow me to induce a state of gratitude, compassion, equanimity and clarity. I need to think more about using these even more often! I also want to be more attuned to those I am interacting with and be aware that their behavior is being influenced by emotional states that have nothing to do with me – an important misconception that has gotten me into interpersonal trouble more than once.

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