The opposite of a great truth is also true. William J. McGuire (1973)
Something of a great truth in the affect-cognition literature is the idea that the cognitive consequences of affect are etched in psychological stone. Positive and negative emotions, for example, have distinct cognitive and perceptual effects: positive moods make people think in superficial ways, and negative moods make people think more analytically; happy people are quick to focus on the forest, and sad people are quick to focus on the trees; and so forth.
Our research turns this great truth on its head by showing that the influence of affect on cognition is highly flexible. We take as a theoretical starting point the view that positive and negative affect influence cognition simply by providing information about the value or validity of accessible thoughts and styles of thinking (Clore & Huntsinger, 2009; Huntsinger & Clore, 2012; Huntsinger & Schnall, 2013). Positive affect serves as a “go signal” that encourages the use of mental content and negative affect serves as a “stop signal” that discourages the use of such content. Thus, rather than assuming a direct or dedicated connection between affect and styles of cognitive processing, this view implies that the impact of affect on cognition should be quite malleable and depend on what thoughts and responses happen to be in mind at the time. Further, the reason that affect appeared to have fixed effects on cognition in past research is that, across people and situations, the same thoughts and styles of thinking are usually highly accessible.
Take, for example, one of the strongest contenders for a direct link between affect and cognition: attentional scope. Going as far back as Easterbrook (1959), it has been assumed that positive affect broadens, and negative affect narrows, the scope of attention. However, a global focus is often dominant, and the tasks employed in psychological studies only reinforce this already highly accessible tendency. In past research, then, positive affect merely validated, and negative affect invalidated, this tendency leading to the appearance of a fixed effect of emotion on perception. Thus, if one makes a local focus momentarily dominant, then the influence of affect on perception should reverse. Now, happy people should focus on the trees and sad people the forest. I found support for this idea in two recent papers for not only perceptual scope (Huntsinger, Clore & Bar-Anan, 2010) but also attentional scope (Huntsinger, 2012). In the latter paper, providing strong evidence against the idea of a fixed connection between affect and attentional scope, I found that when a global and local focus were equally accessible, and thus affect had nothing for which to serve as a go or stop signal, the link between affect and attentional scope vanished.
A similar flexible impact of affect is illustrated in other research in which I explored the influence of positive and negative moods on the correspondence between implicit and explicit attitudes. In an early paper I found that happy people, as compared to sad people, were more likely to report explicit attitudes that agreed with their implicit attitudes, and that this occurred because happy mood validated and sad mood invalidated accessible implicit attitudes (Huntsinger & Smith, 2009). In another paper, I reversed this link by manipulating the accessibility of tendencies to trust or distrust intuition (Huntsinger, 2011). Implicit attitudes are often experienced as gut reactions or feelings. Therefore, the explicit attitude reports of people who trust their intuitions are more likely to faithfully reflect their implicit attitudes than those who distrust their intuitions. In a series of studies I found that positive mood validated and negative mood invalidated such tendencies to trust or distrust intuition. Thus, when the tendency to distrust intuition was accessible, the usual impact of affect on implicit-explicit attitude correspondence was reversed. Now happy people were less likely than sad people to allow their implicit attitudes to inform their explicit attitude reports.
The same logic can be applied to what appears to be a dedicated link between affect and stereotyping. Past research repeatedly showed that stereotypes are more likely to infiltrate the judgments of happy people than sad people. My own research showed that these judgmental effects occur because happy people are more likely than sad people to not only apply stereotypes, but actually to activate them in the first place (Huntsinger, Sinclair & Clore, 2009). However, as with a global focus, stereotypes are often highly accessible thoughts when encountering or merely imagining members of stereotyped groups. If one instead makes accessible thoughts and responses that undermine or inhibit stereotyping, the link between affect and stereotyping should reverse. I found support for this idea in a series of studies (Huntsinger et al., 2010). In this research, happy moods reduced stereotyping compared to negative moods among individuals for whom the goal to be egalitarian was chronically or temporarily accessible. In the absence of egalitarian goals, happy moods increased stereotyping compared to negative moods. Similarly, among individuals for whom counter-stereotypic thoughts were made accessible via exposure to strong female leaders or through formation of counter-stereotypic implementation intentions (e.g., think safe in the presence of African Americans), happy moods reduced stereotyping compared to sad moods. The opposite, and characteristic, influence of happy and sad mood on stereotyping was found among individuals for whom such thoughts were not accessible. In other research I demonstrated a similar flexibility in the tendency of happy mood to increase implicit prejudice (Huntsinger & Sinclair, 2010).