Do the Math: Cognitive Load Attenuates Negative Feelings

If strongly negative information incorporates more mental resources than mildly negative information, taxing people’s mental capacity with a highly demanding task should reduce people’s emotional responses to strongly negative information to a greater degree than people’s responses to mildly negative information. In support of this reasoning, people only report more intense negative feelings in response to extremely negative images (e.g. mutilated bodies, a famine victim) than in response to mildly negative images (e.g. a crying face, a cockroach on a slice of pizza) when cognitive load of a distracter task is low or absent – i.e. when ample mental resources are available to process the images. When people perform a demanding distracter task, people no longer report more intense negative feelings in response to extremely negative images than in response to mildly negative images (Van Dillen & Koole, 2007).

Some Implications of Emotion’s Limited Resources

The above findings represent a diverse body of research that support the notion that cognitive and emotional processes compete over the same limited mental resources, such that by performing a cognitive task, people can reduce their negative feelings. Although performing a distracter task may thus be an effective tool to deal with negative emotions, it is unlikely to be the ultimate solution to all of people’s emotional problems. That is, distraction reduces the immediate impact of an emotional response, but it leaves the source of this response unaddressed. For example, when Person “B” decides to induce a high mental load on him- or herself by working 70 hours per week in order to deal with the emotional pain as a consequence of Person “A”’s antisocial behavior, the structural cause of their relationship problems remains intact, which makes it likely that the emotional pain will rebound once Person “B” ceases to distract him – or herself. In other words, taxing ones mental resources can be a tool to stop a destructive cycle of negative thoughts dead in it's tracks (Rice, Levine, & Pizarro, 2007), but in the end, distraction is no substitute for problem solving.

One interesting question would be whether taxing people’s processing resources with a demanding task would not only attenuate negative feelings, but also positive feeling states. So far, research has produced somewhat mixed findings on distraction from positive feelings (Erber & Tesser, 1992; Van Dillen & Koole, 2007). This may be because positive feelings operate along different criteria than negative feelings (Isen, 2002). For example, positive feelings are less intrusive, and dissolve more easily than negative feelings (Fiedler, Nickel, Asbeck, & Pagel., 2003), which should make it easier to ‘get rid of’ positive feelings than of negative feelings without having to tax ones mental resources. In fact, because of positive emotions’ free floating properties, people may rather experience difficulties to maintain a positive state.

This may be different for other motivational states such as hunger, fatigue, and sexual desire. Like negative thoughts, cravings (e.g. for food, for sex) have strong intrusive powers, which makes it so hard for people to resist them (Kavanagh, Andrade & May, 2005). Yet, people sometimes forget to eat or drink when they’re deeply involved in a task. Possibly then, a cognitive task may be used as a tool to fight off temptation. Research findings provide some initial support for this idea (Kemps, Tiggemann & Grigg, 2008; Kemps, Tiggemann & Hart, 2004; May, Andrade, Panabokke, & Kavanagh, 2004). For example, people feel fewer cravings for chocolate in response to viewing tasty chocolate pictures, when, subsequently, a rapidly changing screensaver is switched on (Kemps, Tiggemann & Hart, 2004). In a similar vein, smoking-deprived individuals feel less smoking urges when they can watch a game of tennis while they have to wait for an appointment (May, Andrade, Panabokke, & Kavanagh, 2004).

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