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The Dumb Side of Happiness

Comments on a study that found people resort to stereotypic thinking when they are happy as well as when they are frustrated or angry. Galen V. Bodenhausen; Report in the 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology'; Racial stereotypes; Study details.

Conventional wisdom holds that stereotypes spring from the darker sides of the human psyche: anger, frustration, fear. Maybe so. But a recent study finds that people also resort to stereotypic thinking when they are happy.

In a series of experiments at Michigan State University, undergraduates were asked to imagine that they were members of a peer disciplinary panel assembled to judge an assault case. Some were told that the alleged assailant's name was John Garner; others were given the name Juan Garcia. The researchers, who reported their work in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provided both groups with an otherwise identical case summary and asked them to rate the likelihood that the accused was guilty.

The panelists' judgments, alas, conformed to a common racial stereotype. Juan was rated more likely to be guilty.

But there's a twist. Only when the researchers induced a happy mood by playing the students cheerful music or asking them to describe a happy memory--did the stereotyping occur. Subjects asked to remember mundane events from the previous day rated both suspects equally guilty.

Achieving social harmony in a multiracial society need not preclude a happy populace. The disparity in Juan and John's guilt disappeared when the happy students were asked to justify their decisions.

Psychologist Galen V. Bodenhausen suggests that happy people simply aren't motivated enough to tackle a complex analysis; it might spoil their good mood. Instead, they rely on quick conclusions--the cognitive equivalent of a TV dinner. Only when given sufficient reason do they take the time to prepare a more thoughtful evaluation.