The influence of emotions on cognitive functioning

July 13th Room 2
Katharina Schnitzspahn (University of Aberdeen) & Francesco Pupillo (University of Aberdeen)

Memories for positive events such as ones birthday party can be especially well preserved, while sometimes it seems impossible to focus on work, because we are feeling sad. It seems plausible that our emotions influence our cognitive functioning, but how exactly and why do emotional and cognitive processes interact? The current symposium will systematically address these questions using different methodological and analytical approaches. It will consider the effects of emotional task material on cognitive performance as well as the effects of emotional states. First, Michiko Sakaki will present a series of experiments showing that emotionally arousing stimuli selectively enhance processing and remembering of surrounding stimuli if these are highly salient or goal-relevant. Thomas Hostler will present a meta-analysis suggesting that intentional behaviour is better implemented when the moment to perform the intended action is indicated by a positive cue. Annette Brose will present results of a psychometric study suggesting that emotional information is not processed and maintained in a separate working memory subsystem for affective information. Moving from effects of emotional task material to emotional states, Julia Vogt will present two studies suggesting that our desired affective states can guide attention to goal-relevant stimuli, as long as the goal is functional. Francesco Pupillo will present a naturalistic study using experience sampling to measure naturally occurring mood and cognitive performance in participants' everyday lives. Results show that young but not older adults’ cognition is impaired by negative mood, while positive mood enhances cognition in both age groups.

How desired emotional states impact attention and attentional control 

Julia Vogt, Bahram Mahmoodi Kahriz & Joanne Bower

Do people see what they feel or want to feel? Much research suggests that people attend to emotional stimuli that reflect their current or chronic emotional state. For instance, anxious or fearful people attend to threat. In the present talk, we will examine whether people also attend to information that reflects their desired emotional state. In Experiment 1, we investigated whether threat causes people to attend to threat or to stimuli that represent safety. In order to do so, we induced a threat and measured attention to stimuli representing the threat and to stimuli that allowed participants to avoid threat and reach safety. Attentional priority was given to stimuli that represent safety. In contrast, study 2 presents first evidence that motivations to reach desired emotional states can also fail in guiding attentional control efficiently. Two experiments suggest that obsessively wanting to feel happy impairs attentional control in the presence of emotional events. In sum, the present talk highlights how desired emotional states impact attention and attentional control. However, whereas functional goals appear to guide attention to stimuli that help to achieve this state, dysfunctional goals seem to impair attentional processes.

The influence of emotional cues on prospective memory: a systematic review with meta-analyses 

Thomas Hostler, Chantelle Wood & Chris Armitage

Studying how emotion affects prospective memory can offer a unique perspective on emotion-cognition interactions. Prospective memory refers to the set of cognitive processes that allow one to remember to perform an action in the future, including memory encoding and retrieval, task-switching, and attention. Although a number of studies have investigated how the emotionality of cues affect prospective memory performance, the results are inconsistent, prompting questions as to what moderates any effects. We conducted a systematic search to synthesise research on the influence of emotion on prospective memory. Sixty-seven effect sizes were extracted from 17 articles and hypothesised effects tested using three meta-analyses. Overall, prospective memory was enhanced when positively-valenced rather than neutral cues were presented (d = 0.32). In contrast, negatively-valenced cues did not enhance prospective memory overall (d = 0.07), but this effect was moderated by the timing of the emotional manipulation. Prospective memory performance was improved when negatively-valenced cues were presented during both encoding and retrieval (d = 0.40), but undermined when presented only during encoding (d = −0.25). Moderating effects were also found for cue-focality and whether studies controlled for the arousal level of the cues. Although specially designed studies are necessary to empirically test the patterns observed, the results suggest how emotional cues may differentially affect different cognitive processes (e.g. encoding, retrieval) and how these effects may also be valence-dependent.

Emotional arousal interacts with priority in affecting cognition 

Michiko Sakaki

When encountering something emotional, momentary increases in arousal by the event not only affect the way we process the emotional event but also the way we process temporally or spatially nearby information. However, previous studies provide an inconsistent set of results about how emotionally arousing stimuli influence processing of other stimuli around them. According to recent theoretical accounts, emotional arousal should amplify neural gain and therefore stronger inputs should be prioritized more under emotional arousal, while weaker signals should not benefit from arousal. In a series of experiments, we tested this prediction in memory, attention and perception. We found that emotional arousal enhances memory and attention for other information when it is goal-relevant and therefore has strong inputs, whereas emotional arousal impairs memory and attention for other information when it is goal-irrelevant and therefore has weaker inputs. We also found that emotional arousal selectively enhances perception of salient signals over non-salient signals. These results suggest that momentary increases in arousal due to emotional events have enhancing effects only for strong and prioritized representations irrespective of whether priority is determined by high perceptual saliency or goal-relevance.

Affective working memory is not distinguishable from working memory: a psychometric approach 

Annette Brose, Peter Kuppens & Florian Schmiedek

It has been suggested that difficulties in regulating emotions that are common in depression are associated with difficulties in the ability to update stimuli in working memory (WM). In this context, the idea emerged that “affective working memory” (aWM) is distinguishable from working memory (WM), with an essential difference between aWM and WM being the material that is being processed: its valence is either neutral or positive / negative. Some evidence emerged that deficits in emotion regulation might be associated specifically with aWM and not WM. The aim of this study was to test whether, from a psychometric perspective, aWM is distinguishable from WM. 180 younger adults worked on a battery of three different WM tasks (i.e., three versions of the n-back task). Stimulus material (words, faces, pictures) distinguished between neutral and affective (positive and negative) stimuli. Using confirmatory factor analyses, we tested whether we could distinguish between factors that measure the performance on affective vs. neutral material. Results were that in none of the tasks, such aWM factors emerged (e.g., the correlation of affective and neutral factors was close to 1). These results suggest that it does not seem justified to consider aWM being a separable construct, at least in healthy young adults. It remains to be tested whether aWM exists in clinical populations, as prior research that established the concept of aWM often has worked such populations.

Influence of everyday mood on naturalistic prospective memory in aging 

Francesco Pupillo, Louise Phillips Phillips & Katharina Schnitzspahn

Later adulthood can be characterised by a gradual decline in most cognitive abilities, while emotional abilities remain relatively stable and even improve. As a result, studies suggest that cognition in young but not older adults is impaired by current mood states. However, the majority of these studies were conducted in the laboratory using film clips, pictures or stories to induce mood. More research is needed to examine if the observed pattern of age benefits when being challenged with a cognitive task and an emotional state at the same time actually hold true outside of the laboratory. The aim of the present study was therefore to investigate the influence of naturally occurring mood on cognition. We chose prospective memory (PM), the realisation of delayed intentions, as our cognitive measure given that PM is crucial to maintain independence in later life. We tested 40 young and 30 older adults in a laboratory session and a naturalistic assessment period in participants’ everyday lives. In order to assess natural mood, we sent nine SMS a day for seven days. Each SMS contained a link to a short questionnaire which prompted participants to rate their mood. The naturalistic PM task asked participants to send SMS at specific predefined times and when a particular target word occurred in the SMS. Data analyses are still ongoing, but first results suggest impairing effects of strong negative mood on PM in young adults, while positive mood seems to improve PM in both age groups.