Mood matters

The study released through the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences found that peoples’ creative motivation, even the way they would like to die, is influenced by the way they feel.

Psychology professor Ed Hirt and former psychology student Erin Devers represented IU in the study; Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz also took part in the research.

“I think that this research is helpful for people in everyday life,” Devers said. “If you want to come up with a good idea or write an interesting paper, you should do something to get yourself in a positive mood, which should motivate you to be more creative.”

The experiment took place on and off for 20 years – condensed, the research actually took about four years to do, Hirt said.

The researchers wanted to see three different aspects of the possible link between mood and creativity, according to the study. These included how mood affected the task someone chose to do, how mood affected the person when assigned a task and if those with happy feelings would maintain their mood if they didn’t think creative tasks would keep their spirits up, according to the study. After studying the information gathered from the experiment, the researchers concluded that people in happy moods choose creative activities in order to maintain their happy mood.

Devers, who graduated in 2007 from IU with a Ph.D. in psychology, said the experiment needed an elaborate back story to prevent the subjects from knowing why they were actually being examined. In an experiment called “Rating Movies,” participants were asked to fill out questionnaires about the desirability of certain tasks and how creative they found them. The participants were then put in a cubicle and watched clips from the 1968 thriller “Bullitt” in order to reduce the participants’ suspicion of the true purpose of the study.

After examining the questionnaires, the researchers split them into three groups: “happy,” in which they watched humorous clips, “sad,” in which they watched somber clips and “neutral,” in which they watched documentary clips, according to the study. The participants were then asked about their current mood and then given the same set of questions about tasks. The researchers found that participants who were in the happy group were more likely to choose the tasks they had previously rated as being creative, according to the study. Devers explained that the results connected with the group’s goal by saying that happy people enjoy being happy, which sways their decision when choosing a task.

“When you are in a negative or neutral mood, just about anything will maintain or improve your mood,” she said. “But when you are in a positive mood, you have to choose carefully what you do to hold on to the positive mood.”

The second part of the experiment involved participants watching film clips and rating their current mood. The participants were then asked to choose different ways to do undesirable tasks, including death and modes of transportation. The researchers found happy participants were more likely to pick creative causes of death. Devers said this was personally the most interesting.

“I found it particularly compelling that even when listing causes of death, participants in the positive mood condition were able to make it enjoyable by listing things like, ‘having a piano fall from a skyscraper on your head,’ or other cartoon-like responses,” she said.

Hirt added that, for this particular part of the study, most of his colleagues thought the participants would “avoid the task altogether or do a quick and lousy job to evade” the task, but the participants changed the situation to fit their mood.

The third part of the study used the modes of transportation model again, this time using a variable they described to the participants as a “mood-freezing” candle. The participants rated their current mood, and then smelled an aromatherapy candle, and some participants were told that the candle would be mood-freezing, and would keep them in their current mood. The participants then listed their preferred mode of transportation. This study showed that those in happy moods that were not told about any mood-freezing effects were much more likely to pick more creative and sometimes figurative modes of transportation, such as e-mail, LSD or literature, than those who were told about the effects.

Devers said she thinks the study is informative because, in contrast to other studies she has done with Hirt, there did not seem to be any differences between genders, and there are no foreseeable differences in social class. Devers also said she thinks the results they found will be useful for future use.

Hirt said he would like to continue the study in the future by seeing if results change when participants are being evaluated or judged by others, which was not a variable in the current experiment.

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