What doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger, it would seem. In a new study published by Tel Aviv University, researchers show that repeated exposure to negative stimuli may neutralize its effect on your mood and thoughts. According to the authors, the study may further our current understanding of human emotion and attention.
It is today widely accepted that a bad mood tends to dampen most mental faculties. Psychological research has shown that a piece of bad news may haunt your entire day by restricting basic cognitive processes like speech, writing, and counting. The current study, published in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, sought to determine whether this negative effect can be avoided without eschewing media consumption altogether.
"A bad mood is known to slow cognition," lead author Moshe Shay Ben-Haim said in a press release. "We show that, counterintuitively, you can avoid getting into a bad mood in the first place by dwelling on a negative event.”
In support of their thesis, the researchers cite an experiment involving a tweaked version of the Stroop task. The task, which is one of the most famous tools in experimental psychology, basically explores how two rivaling stimuli interfere with an individual’s reaction time. As a subject, you are presented with a sequence of printed words and asked to name the color of the font. However, the words themselves denote incongruent colors (e.g. the word “red” is printed in green ink), which inevitably come into temporary conflict with the color of the font. This causes a delay in reaction time known as the Stroop effect.
In their modified version of the task, the researchers added an emotional layer. Rather than items denoting incongruent colors, the sequence contained emotionally charged words, such as “terrorism.” According to the researchers, the interference of these emotions paralleled that of the incongruent color names, as a similar delay – or Stroop effect – obtained.
Intriguingly, the researchers also found that when the same word appeared twice, the Stroop effect was cut short, regardless of ink color. For example, the second time “terrorist” appeared, subjects were able to identify its color without delay. From this, the researchers concluded that negative emotional stimuli lose their effect after repeated exposure.
If they are correct, ridding your day of bad vibes may be easier than you think. “If you look at the newspaper before you go to work and see a headline about a bombing or tragedy of some kind, it's better to read the article all the way through and repeatedly expose yourself to the negative information,” the researchers explained. “You will be freer to go on with your day in a better mood and without any negative effects."
Source: Moshe Shay Ben-Haim, Yaniv Mama, Michal Icht, Daniel Algom. Is the emotional Stroop task a special case of mood induction? Evidence from sustained effects of attention under emotion. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 2013.