A good mood enhances some kinds of learning

A positive mood can make you think more flexibly.

Posted Dec 31, 2010

Smiley Face

Does being in a good mood affect your ability to learn?

Some days you wake up and everything feels right. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you couldn't be happier. On those days, it can also feel like you handle difficult situations with ease. Are you really doing better on the days when you feel good, or is it just that your mood colors the way you see your performance?

Alice Isen and her colleagues have explored the effect of positive mood on creativity and performance for a number of years. They create positive mood in the lab by giving people an unexpected gift, playing happy music or having people watch enjoyable videos. Their research suggests that people may be better at solving problems when they are in a positive mood than when they are in a negative or neutral mood.

A paper in the December, 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Ruby Nadler, Rahel Rabi, and John Paul Minda explored this question in an interesting way. These researchers took advantage of studies by Greg Ashby, Todd Maddox, and their colleagues showing that we may engage different kinds of learning when learning to classify new things. Some kinds of classification require learning a rule that helps you to identify members of one category rather than another. For example, if you are studying geometry, then there are extensive rules that you learn for classifying different kinds of figures.

X-ray of a hand

Learning to read X-rays requires implicit learning

Other times, we classify things through extensive experience without really being able to define a rule that tells us the difference between things that are in the category and those that are not. When I go to a doctor's office and see an x-ray, I just see a set of gray blobs. A doctor is able to look at that same image and distinguish between those that reflect broken bones and those that do not. That skill reflects a lot of experience looking at x-rays.

Ashby and Maddox have shown that learning rule-based categories requires a lot of flexibility and creativity, while learning things like reading x-rays requires a more implicit strategy of associating items to the categories to which they belong.

Nadler, Rabi, and Minda had people learn either a novel category that required a rule to learn or a novel category that required implicit learning. Before people learned the category, they were exposed to music and videos designed to influence their mood. Using these clips, some people were given a positive mood, others were given a negative mood, and a third group was given a neutral mood.

The people in a positive mood learned to classify items that required a rule-based strategy faster than those in a neutral or negative mood. The moods did not influence the speed of learning the categories that required implicit learning.

This finding suggests that positive mood has a specific influence on learning. It affects your ability to learn things that require some amount of flexibility and creativity. It does not influence learning where flexibility is not required.

What does this mean for you? If you know that you are going to have to exhibit some degree of mental flexibility, then you should do what you can to put yourself in a positive mood. Listen to some happy music. Talk to colleagues and friends you enjoy. Spend a few minutes checking out the latest viral YouTube video. There is real value to feeling good.

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