Positive emotions slash bias, help people see big picture details

Positive emotions like joy and humor help people “get the big picture,” virtually eliminating the own-race bias that makes many people think members of other races “all look alike,” according to new University of Michigan research. “Negative emotions create a tunnel vision,” said U-M psychology researcher Kareem Johnson.

“Negative emotions like fear or anger are useful for short-term survival when there’s an immediate danger like being chased by a dangerous animal. Positive emotions like joy and happiness are for long-term survival and promote big picture thinking, make you more inclusive and notice more details, make you think in terms of ‘us’ instead of ‘them.'”

To simulate getting a quick glance of a stranger, scientists flashed photos of individuals for about a half second, finding subjects recognized members of their own race 75 percent of the time but only recognized members of another race 65 percent of the time, Johnson said. However, researchers found positive emotions boosted that recognition of cross-race faces about 10 to 20 percent, eliminating the gap.

The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Johnson, who is completing his PhD work in psychology, and Barbara Fredrickson, a U-M psychology professor and director of the Positive Emotion and Psychophysiology Laboratory, specialize in the power of positive emotions.

Researchers asked a group of 89 students to watch a video either of a comic to induce joy and laughter, a horror video to induce anxiety, or a “neutral” video that would not effect emotions. They then looked at 28 yearbook style photos of college-aged people in random order for 500 milliseconds.

Subjects who watched the comedy tested for having much higher positive emotions, while those who saw the horror video had far more “negative” emotions. In a testing phase, more images flashed by and they were asked to push buttons to indicate whether they’d seen the pictures earlier. Those in a positive mood had a far greater ability to recognize members of another race, while their ability to recognize members of their own race stayed the same.

The researchers conclude that positive emotions bring with them a “broadening effect” that helps people see a bigger, broader picture of the world around them.

From University of Michigan

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