Your Mood Can Affect How You Interpret Words

A new study led by the University of Arizona suggests that when people are in a bad mood, they may be more likely to notice inconsistencies in what they read. The study expands on earlier investigations into how language is processed by the brain.

“Mood and language seem to be supported by different brain networks. But we have one brain, and the two are processed in the same brain, so there is a lot of interaction going on. We show that when people are in a negative mood, they are more careful and analytical. They scrutinize what’s actually stated in a text, and they don’t just fall back on their default world knowledge,”

said Vicky Lai, a U of Arizona assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science. To investigate how people’s brains respond to language when they are in a positive or negative mood, she collaborated with researchers in the Netherlands.

Friends vs Sophies Choice

In order to affect the moods of study participants, Lai and her co-authors Jos van Berkum of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and Peter Hagoort of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands showed them clips from either the depressing film “Sophie’s Choice” or the humorous television program “Friends.”

The participants’ moods, both before and after watching the clips, were assessed using a computerized survey. The researchers discovered that while the humorous clips had no effect on participants’ moods, the depressing clips were successful in making participants feel more down.

After that, the participants listened to a series of emotionally detached audio recordings of four-sentence stories, each of which contained a “critical sentence” that either supported or contradicted their default, or familiar, word knowledge. The participants’ brain waves were monitored by an EEG test, which measures brain waves, as that sentence was displayed on a computer screen one word at a time.

With Lights On You See Less

For instance, the researchers gave study participants a narrative about nighttime driving that included the crucial phrase “With the lights on, you can see more.”

The same crucial sentence was changed to read “With the lights on, you can see less.” in a different story about stargazing. Although that statement is true when discussing stargazing, it defies common sense to think that turning on the lights would make it harder for someone to see.

Additionally, the researchers provided versions of the stories in which the crucial sentences had been switched around so that they no longer made sense in the context of the narrative. For instance, the phrase “With the lights on, you can see less.” would be used in the story about nighttime driving.

They then examined how the brain reacted to the inconsistencies based on their mood.

Moods Matter

Scalp distribution of the effects obtained by subtracting the supported critical word (d+s+) from each of the other conditions
Scalp distribution of the effects obtained by subtracting the supported critical word (d+s+) from each of the other conditions (d-s-, d-s+, d+s-) in the N400 time window (300–500 ms) and the LPC (late positivity component) time window (600–1,000 ms).
Credit: Lai VT, van Berkum J and Hagoort P CC-BY

They discovered that when participants were in a bad mood, based on their survey responses, they displayed a type of brain activity that was closely related to re-analysis.

“We show that mood matters, and perhaps when we do some tasks we should pay attention to our mood,” Lai said. “If we’re in a bad mood, maybe we should do things that are more detail-oriented, such as proofreading.”

The experiment was repeated twice, once in the negative mood condition and once in the happy mood condition. Each trial was held one week apart, with the same stories told each time.

“These are the same stories, but in different moods, the brain sees them differently, with the sad mood being the more analytical mood,”

Lai said.

Study Limitations

The study was carried out in the Netherlands, with participants who were native Dutch speakers, and it was carried out in Dutch. Lai, on the other hand, believes their findings are applicable across languages and cultures.

The study participants were all women by design, as Lai and her colleagues wanted to align their study with existing literature that only included female participants. Future studies, according to Lai, should include more diverse gender representation.

Meanwhile, Lai and her colleagues believe that mood affects us in more ways than we previously realized.

“When thinking about how mood affects them, many people just consider things like being grumpy, eating more ice cream, or at best, interpreting somebody else’s talk in a biased way. But there’s much more going on, also in unexpected corners of our minds,”

van Berkum said.

It would be unacceptable to have a laptop that had variable accuracy depending on the battery level. But it seems like something similar is going on in the way humans and, probably, other species like us process information.

  1. Lai VT, van Berkum J and Hagoort P (2022) Negative affect increases reanalysis of conflicts between discourse context and world knowledge. Front. Commun. 7:910482. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2022.910482


Last Updated on October 27, 2023