A good mood reduces working memory capacity

April, 2011

A new study suggests a positive mood affects attention by using up some of your working memory capacity.

Following earlier research suggesting mood affects attention, a new study tries to pin down exactly what it’s affecting.

To induce different moods, participants were shown either a video of a stand-up comedy routine or an instructional video on how to install flooring. This was followed by two tests, one of working memory capacity (the Running Memory Span), during which numbers are presented through headphones at a rate of four numbers per second ending with subjects asked to recall the last six numbers in order, and one of response inhibition (the Stroop task).

Those that watched the comedy routine performed significantly worse on the RMS task but not on the Stroop task. To confirm these results, a second experiment used a different measure of response inhibition, the Flanker task. Again, those in a better mood performed worse on the span task but not the inhibition task.

These findings point to mood affecting storage capacity — something we already had evidence for in the case of negative mood, like anxiety, but a little more surprising to find it also applies to happy moods. Basically, it seems as if any emotion, whether good or bad, is likely to leave you less room in your working memory store for information processing. That shouldn’t be taken as a cue to go all Spock! But it’s something to be aware of.

Reference: 

[2180] Martin, E. A., & Kerns J. G.
(2011).  The influence of positive mood on different aspects of cognitive control.
Cognition & Emotion. 25(2), 265 - 265.