The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

When Worrying Works

Some of us can harness worries for our own good.

"Worrying never solves anything."

So we have been told—incorrectly.

Imagine you are about to perform an important task. Maybe you have a crucial job interview, a speech to deliver, or a final exam to take. How do you feel? What emotions do you imagine you should want to feel if you want to do your absolute best? 

Various models of emotion regulation argue that emotions provide us with information that guides our decision making, impacting what we choose to do and how well we do it. At the most basic level, feeling positive emotions is a sign that things are going well (sufficient award, low danger) and feeling negative emotions is a sign that things are going bad (insufficient award, too much punishment, danger or potential danger). Not wanting to feel negatively, we alter our behavior, goals, or values in a way that places us in a more positive mood state.

When our goals are long-term, however, a conflict can arise between wanting to feel good in the moment and behaving in ways that promote that long-term goal. If you don't practice that speech, you may feel better now, avoiding the worrying and stress that comes with thinking about your upcoming performance. But if you do practice now, your chance of feeling positive emotions in the future is likely to increase.

Interestingly, research by Boston College psychologist Maya Tamir suggests that worrying can actually improve performance—for some people.

Neuroticism is a personality trait marked by worrying, anxiety, general moodiness, emotional fluctuations, and irritability. Although all of us experience aspects of this personality trait to some degree, we vary in the extent to which we chronically experience them. In other words, there are people who are high in neuroticism and others who are low in neuroticism. 

Tamir's research, across four studies, found that people high in neuroticism are more likely to worry, and more likely to put themselves in situations that promote worrying, especially when they are about to perform an important task. Most interestingly, though, for these individuals worrying also was associated with increased performance on a word completion task that the majority of subjects rated as difficult. Specifically, they performed better when they were first asked to recall an experience in which they worried, relative to a happy experience. Results also indicated that subjects were generally unaware of the influence emotion had on their performance, positive or negative.

For some people, then, worrying can improve performance on difficult tasks. This is because a match between how chronically emotions are felt (trait affect) and current feelings (state affect) increases task engagement.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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