When the Going Gets Tough, Your Focus Might Keep You Going
We are living in very uncertain times, experiencing numerous emotions every day. We feel happy because our relatives are safe and healthy, sad because the coronavirus is still not disappearing, or angry when new restrictions are imposed and our freedom needs to be limited for the greater good.
How could all of these emotions—positive and negative—influence how we deal with information? Will they cause us to attend to only a limited number of cues around us (thus narrow our attention) or will they make us more receptive to numerous cues (thus broadening the attention)?
There is much to learn about how different emotions impact how we pay attention to information. One account states that positive emotions broaden the attentional scope, while negative emotions narrow it. But what might complicate things further is that sometimes we are motivated to seek out positive things, while other times we are hoping to avoid negative things, and this, too, could influence how we pay attention.
The Role of Gains and Losses
A really simple real-life manifestation of both positive and negative emotions is that, as humans, we are motivated to seek gains and avoid losses. Think about how great it is to win money, and how awful it is to lose it. Our studies used this kind of experience to explore the connection between monetary gains and losses and human attention—with gains being closely related to positive emotions (yay, money!) and losses to negative emotions (what a bummer!).
We invited our college student participants to play a simple game. Some could earn money in each round (gains). Others had to try not to lose money given to them beforehand (losses). Each time, we measured their attention scope when they were anticipating likely gains or losses, or after they experienced either gains or losses.
How Could We Measure “Attention Scope”?
For this, participants were shown big alphabet letters composed of small letters (for instance, a big letter ‘A’ composed of many small letters ‘E’), and we asked them to name as quickly and as accurately as possible either the big letter (‘A’) or the small letter (‘E’). Quickly naming the ‘A’ means participants were looking at the whole image (broadened attention), while quickly naming the ‘E’ shows they were focusing in on the details of the image (narrowed attention).
As expected, we got different results for gains versus losses. People anticipating gains had a narrower attentional scope but it broadened for those who have already experienced additional gains (money, that is). The pattern reversed for losses, with people having a broader scope when anticipating losses, but a narrowed scope after experiencing losses.
Interestingly, our findings fit with what’s known about the defensive behavior of animals. That research shows that when facing a threat in the environment, the animal broadens its attentional scope so they can pinpoint the exact source of threat. Then, when the threat is identified, the fight or flight response becomes activated, narrowing attention.
These findings map onto our results for losses. When losses are anticipated and uncertain, the broad attentional scope should help prevent losses from happening. In contrast, narrower attentional scope after the loss should assist in deciding how to act, when more focus is needed.
People anticipate and experience negative emotional states on countless occasions in their lives. They wait for the results of exams, they are anxious before their next job interview, they worry that their presentation at work is not going to be successful. In the current pandemic, these negative emotions are even more pronounced, for instance, while waiting for the results of a COVID test or anticipating monetary losses due to lockdown regulations.
We show that in such states, attentional scope broadens. As a result, there is a possibility of being more influenced by the cues in the environment, and making impulsive choices triggered by the abundance of stimuli we are exposed to every day. Conversely, after experiencing such states, people’s attention narrows down, which should help them to get up again and continue their daily pursuits with more focus.
As the saying goes: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ With our research, we demonstrate that when things are tough, our focused attention might help us keep going.
For Further Reading
Gable, P. A., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2011). Attentional consequences of pregoal and postgoal positive affects. Emotion, 11(6), 1358–1367. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025611
Harmon-Jones, E., Gable, P. A., & Price, T. F. (2013). Does negative affect always narrow and positive affect always broaden the mind? Considering the influence of motivational intensity on cognitive scope. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(4), 301–307. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413481353
Sadowski, S., Fennis, B. M., & van Ittersum, K. (2020). Losses tune differently than gains: How gains and losses shape attentional scope and influence goal pursuit. Cognition and Emotion, 34(7), 1439-1456. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2020.1760214
Sebastian Sadowski is an Assistant Professor in Persuasive Communication at the Center for Language Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen. His research examines the impact of subtle environmental cues on judgment and decision-making.