There’s a myth that sad people are wise, and that happy people are dumb.
But new research shows that the opposite is actually true.
According to a study published earlier this summer in the Journal of Consumer Research, happy people make better, faster decisions, while sad people are more like to waffle and make poor choices.
Christine Page, an associate professor of marketing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs and an author of the study, said the findings came as something of a surprise.
“Some people argue that when you’re happy you don’t put a lot of thought into your decision making,” Page said. “But we found that people are happy and smart. It’s refreshing to know that when you’re in a good mood, you can be really efficient.”
The study determined how mood influences whether people decide whether or not they like a particular object.
Participants were separated into three groups: positive, negative and neutral.
Researchers manipulated their moods by showing them pictures of positive things, such as puppies and kittens, and negative things, such as Hitler and diseased feet. They were then shown pictures of common objects, each of which appeared and disappeared from a computer screen in three-quarters of a second.
The pictures were then replaced by words, such as like, dislike, favorable, unfavorable, appealing and repulsive, and participants pressed a key labeled yes if the word described how they felt about the object, or a key marked no if it did not.
Overall, people who were in a good mood responded more quickly to the words, and were less likely to change their answer later, when the same object appeared on screen.
The research team also found that people in good moods were much more capable of quickly evaluating the positive and negative attributes of an object than people in bad moods, who were more likely to overlook those negative attributes.
“From a practical sense, a person in a bad mood might not consider a reason to dislike an object,” Page said. “You’re a more well-rounded decision maker when you’re in a good mood. If you’re looking to purchase a luxury car [and you’re in a bad mood], you might only consider the things you like about it.”
Page said that people make decisions for all kinds of reasons, but that “in a very general sense, we tend to buy the things we ‘like’ and then are remarkably good at coming up with after-the-fact justifications for how we arrive at our judgments. But, left to our own devices and when in negative moods, we focus on liking questions only and tend to get confirming responses.”
“If you’re interested in making a good shopping decision, you shouldn’t go shopping when you’re in a bad mood,” Page said.
Other research backs this up.
A study printed in the February edition of the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who feel heartbroken or rejected are more likely to overspend, take illegal drugs in public and order food they didn’t want.
How mood influences decision making has long been an area of interest for Page, who wrote her dissertation on the topic.
In that paper, she looked at differences in speed when people were asked positive or negative questions; people responded more quickly when asked whether they liked something than when asked whether they thought something was bad or unfavorable.
Page said answering negative questions takes longer because it requires an extra step; first the person has to consider whether they like something, and they realize that they don’t.
This process of evaluation probably has “an evolutionary root,” Page said. “We’re taught to approach things to determine whether we like them.”