Chapter 13: Positive Emotions

Do Positive Emotions Always Broaden Our Attention?

The Malleable Mood Effects Hypothesis

Recent work by Clore and colleagues (Hunsinger et al., 2012) provides evidence against the broaden and narrowing hypotheses.  Instead, they developed the malleable mood effects hypothesis.  This hypothesis suggests that positive emotions maintain our current thinking style, whereas negative emotions change or inhibit our current thinking style.  Why?  Experiencing a positive emotion leads us to view our current thinking in a positive way.  Whereas experiencing a negative emotion causes us to view our current thinking in a negative way, thus resulting in a change to our cognitive style.  Stated simply – Clore and colleagues view positive emotions as a “go” signal and negative emotions as a “stop” signal.  Table 33 below contrasts the broaden-and-build thinking with the malleable mood effects hypothesis.


Table 33

Two Theoretical Views of How Emotions Influence Thoughts

A table showing emotion groups, Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory for that emotion group, and Clore’s Malleable mood effects hypothesis.
Emotion Group Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory Clore’s Malleable Mood Effects Hypothesis
Positive Emotions Broadens our attention, thinking, and behaviors Maintain our current thinking style
Negative Emotions Narrows our attention, thinking, and behaviors to the treat Change our current thinking style


Hunsinger et al., (2012) tested their hypothesis with three studies.  We will discuss study 3 only.  In study 3, all participants first completed a survey.  ½ participants were randomly assigned to completed surveys scented with a pleasant fragrance, while the other ½ of the participants completed fragrance-free surveys.


After completing the surveys, participants were randomly assigned to either a happiness or sadness condition.  Participants recalled and wrote about either a happy or sad experience.  Then, participants completed an impression formation task, in which they read about a woman named Carol and rated her on a list of personality traits related to extraversion and introversion.  For ½ the participants Carol was described as an introverted librarian and for the other half as an extraverted saleswoman. For all participants, the story about Carol included 12 introverted behaviors, 12 extraverted behaviors, and 15 behaviors unrelated to introversion-extraversion.  So, the impression formation manipulation was simply telling participants Carol was either introverted or extraverted, even though the list of traits remained the same.  After participants completed these two tasks, they reported their subjective feelings.  The dependent variable was calculated as participants’ average extraversion rating of Carol minus participants’ average introversion rating of Carol.  Thus, higher scores indicate participants perceived Carol as highly extraverted.


Before discussing the results, some clarification is required.  The impression formation task assumes that people stereotype librarians as introverted and salespeople as extraverted.  Thus, people’s default thinking style is considered broad and general.  When relying on general stereotypes, people would rate the personality of Carol the librarian as introverted and Carol the salesperson as extraverted, even though the story about Carol includes the same exact behaviors.  In this study, the no-fragrance condition is assumed to cause default broad thinking that relies on stereotypes.  Conversely, the fragrance condition should cause people to focus on their immediate environment and narrow the attention on the fragrance and this narrowed attention is assumed to be carried over to focusing on Carol’s specific behaviors.


Hypothesis 1 – Fragrance Condition: The fragrance condition will cause people to narrow their thinking to the current external environment and in turn, to evaluate the specific behaviors of Carol (not the stereotypes).  Paying attention to details such as Carol’s specific behaviors will make participants less likely to rely on their default stereotypes and more likely to rely on the behaviors listed in the story.  Because happy people maintain their current thinking, happy people will continue to focus on the specific behaviors and should rate Carol the librarian as having the same personality as Carol the salesperson (because the description included 15 introverted and 15 extraverted behaviors).  Conversely, sad people should change cognitive evaluations of Carol from detailed to more general stereotypes.   Thus, sad people should view Carol the librarian as introverted and Carol the salesperson as Extraverted.  This exact finding is displayed in Figure 36 Part B.


Hypothesis 2 – The No Fragrance Condition: The no-fragrance condition will cause people to rely on their default stereotypes.  Because happy people maintain their current thinking and sad people change their thinking, in the no-fragrance condition happy people should rely on broad stereotypes and rate Carol the salesperson as more Extraverted than Carol the librarian.  Because sad people change their current thinking style, they should be less likely to rely on stereotypes and more likely to focus on the behaviors in the description of Carol.  Thus, in the no-fragrance condition sad people should show no differences in the traits they rate for the librarian and salesperson.  This exact finding is displayed in Figure 36 Part A.

Figure 36
The Impact of Emotion and Odor Condition on perceptions of Carol’s Traits (Hunsinger et al., 2012; Study)
Two line graphs. The top graph is labeled, A. No Odor Condition. The bottom graph is labeled, B. Odor ConditionReproduced from “Sometimes happy people focus on the trees and sad people focus on the forest: Context-dependent effects of mood in impression formation,” by M. Hunsinger, L. M. Isbell, and G.L. Clore, 2012, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin38(2), p. 227 ( Copyright 2012 by Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Malleable Mood Effects Hypothesis vs. Broaden-and-Build Theory

Both these theories share similarities and differences, which I describe below.


  1. Both theories demonstrate that positive emotions do broaden our thoughts. The malleable mood effects hypothesis suggests the positive emotion-broadening link occurs only if our dominant thinking was broad before the positive emotion occurs.  Conversely, if we were focused on details and then experienced a negative emotion, this negative emotion would cause us to show more broadened thinking.


  1. Both theories suggest that negative emotions narrow our thinking and attention. The broaden-and-build theory suggests negative emotions focus our attention on the threat.  The malleable mood effects hypothesis says this narrowing can be on any details in our environment, not necessarily threats.  Further, the malleable mood effects hypothesis shows that negative emotions narrow our thinking only if we were thinking more broadly and generally before the negative emotion occurred.  Positive emotions can help us to maintain narrowed thinking as well.


  1. Both theories provide interventions for reducing stereotypes. The broaden-and-build theory provides evidence that positive emotions cause people to include others in their self-concept and to view fewer differences between ingroups and outgroups.  The malleable mood effects hypothesis suggests that whether people reduce their stereotypes depends on 1) thinking style before the emotion and 2) whether people experience a positive or negative emotion.


  1. The main difference between these theories is timing. The broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive emotions cause broadened thinking and doesn’t necessarily consider our mindset before the positive emotion.  Whereas malleable mood effects adds a third variable – our dominant thinking style prior to experiencing any emotion.


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