How Emotions Impact Cognition

How Emotions Impact Cognition

by Andreas Komninos |
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Two information-processing systems determine the human emotional response: the affective and cognitive processing systems. The affective system operates outside of conscious thought and is reactive, in that a series of psychophysiological events are initiated automatically following the receipt of sensory information. In contrast, the cognitive processing system is conscious and involves analysis of sensory information to influence and even counteract the affective system. Affects (i.e. things that induce some change to the affective system) are divided into positive and negative groups. Positive affect has the potential to improve creative thinking, while negative affect narrows thinking and has the potential to adversely affect performance on simple tasks. Emotions are the product of changes in the affective system brought about by sensory information stimulation. Research suggests positive emotions—such as happiness, comfort, contentedness, and pleasure—help us make decisions, allow us to consider a larger set of options, decide quicker, and develop more creative problem-solving strategies. These findings suggest attractive things really do work better (Norman 2005), even if this is only the case because they make us feel better when we are using them.

Much of the work into how users and customers behave focuses on the emotional responses elicited by a product. However, emotions are the product of complex processing systems, which essentially convert sensory information into the psychophysiological and behavioral changes that we refer to as emotional responses. According to Don Norman, cognition and affect are in charge of these emotional responses. Cognition and affect are information-processing systems, which help us convert information from our environment into accurate representations of the world and make value judgments that determine how we respond and behave.

Norman distinguishes the cognitive and affective systems, and defines emotion, thusly: "The cognitive system interprets and makes sense of the world. Affect is the general term for the judgemental system, whether conscious or subconscious. Emotion is the conscious experience of affect, complete with attribution of its cause and identification of its object". The affective and cognitive systems are thought to work independently, but they influence one another, with the former operating unconsciously while the latter operates at the conscious level. For example, imagine you are about to make a speech in front of a room full of people; the affective system is immediately called into action, with chemicals released in your body in response to the situation automatically and without your ability to control this physiological response. However, you may then try to rationalize the situation and focus on your lines, what you want to say, the points you want to get across and the techniques you might have covered beforehand. All of these mental operations are under the control of the cognitive system, which, on this occasion, is working in opposition to the affective system to help us perform to the best of our ability.

The Affective System: Helping us distinguish between the 'good', the 'bad' and the 'ugly'

While the example above gives the impression that the affective system is our enemy – making us feel nervous and stressed, threatening our performance levels as result – it performs an essential function: helping us distinguish 'good' from 'bad'. The affective system is responsible for the 'fight-or-flight' response, which refers to the human instinct to either combat a particular situation or flee instead, as a means of self-preservation. When sensory information signals a significant threat, brain regions responsible for physical activation are stimulated, resulting in the release of various chemicals and hormones. These physiological changes are a double-edged sword; they ensure we are prepared to fight or flee, but they also give rise to negative emotions which affect how well we can perform under pressure. Even in the speech example, the affective system is trying to help us out, telling us to avoid this potentially humiliating or embarrassing experience by flooding our body with adrenaline and cortisol, but unfortunately this also elicits negative emotions such as fear and anxiety.

Negative and Positive Affect

According to Norman (2002), negative emotions are examples of affective states: "...affect changes how well we do cognitive tasks". The classification of an affect as positive or negative is dependent upon the state of psychophysiological arousal we experience. Negative affect refers to any situation or thing which brings about some unpleasant emotional state, such as sadness or tension. In contrast, positive affect refers to any stimulus which elicits a pleasant or advantageous emotional state, such as happiness, awe and optimism. Negative affect has the potential to make simple tasks more difficult or complicated, while positive affect can help reduce the difficulty of complex tasks. For example, if you are trying to write down a telephone number from an answer phone message, but it is being read quickly, you might feel uptight and frustrated, which then affects how fast you can write. In contrast, if you are calm and happy or there is something to make you feel at ease, writing the number down would probably seem less difficult.

Negative and positive affect have different implications for cognition; negative affect limits thinking, but focuses our attention, while positive affect allows us to think more broadly, which enables creativity and supports problem-solving. Therefore, when you want people to concentrate intently, but there is no call for creative thinking, you might induce some negative affect by using warnings or alerts, for example, or using different types of audio. However, if you want your users to tackle complex problems, develop new strategies or simply think creatively, you might use design features which induce positive affect. Some computer games use this knowledge to good effect for designing the user experience, by setting the background music to something dramatic and ominous when the player enters an area where enemies are present (thus, creating anxiety and helping the player to focus on the bad guys), and by using calming and gentle music when the player enters an area where they need to solve a puzzle (thus, supporting their creative thinking).

Affect and Decision-Making

"Without emotions, your decision-making ability would be impaired. Emotion is always passing judgments, presenting you with immediate information about the world: here is potential danger, there is potential comfort; this is nice, that bad. One of the ways by which emotions work is through neurochemicals that bathe particular brain centers and modify perception, decision making, and behavior. These neurochemicals change the parameters of thought."
Don Norman (2005) in “Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things

As the cognitive and affective systems are in charge of our emotional responses, we must consider how we can influence these systems in a positive way to increase the likelihood customers will not only enjoy our products but, first of all, consider buying them. We are still in the early stages of applying our understanding of cognition and affect to user and customer decision-making, but from the research conducted so far, there are some compelling findings. Alice M. Isen, a researcher at Cornell University (2001) carried out a number of studies investigating how positive affect can influence decision-making. She found the effect of positive affect varied according to the importance or meaningfulness attached to a task.

In one such study, Alice M. Isen and Barbara Means, researchers at the time in the University of Maryland (1983), asked consumers to make an informed choice between six hypothetical cars. They found consumers in whom positive affects had been induced prior to the decision-making process were noticeably more efficient in their task processing. Superior performance was judged on the basis of the speed decisions were made, the efficiency of the search process, and the number of dimensions that positive affect consumers eliminated due to their low importance to the final decision. The researchers concluded the car-choice findings indicate people are less confused by large numbers of possible options following positive affect, which allows them to gather the necessary information to direct their final decision with greater speed.

Affect and Behavior

A number of studies have shown increased levels of generosity and helpfulness following some form of positive affect. Furthermore, research has shown facilitation of creativity, cognitive flexibility, innovative responding and openness to information following positive affect. Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi, researchers at the University of Utah and North Carolina (2010), among other researchers, found positive affect can facilitate coping processes and health-promoting behavior. Positive affect is thought to change cognitive processing through greater elaboration and by promoting the consideration of more options. Elaboration serves to improve cognitive organization and increases cognitive capacity, which allows a more active approach to problem-solving. Furthermore, positive affect can greatly influence consumer behavior as the increased, or broader, thinking associated with pleasurable experiences has been found to lead customers to consider a wider range of products from the same brand. Research also suggests positive affect has the potential to influence our value judgments, encouraging us to view products in a better light when they make us feel some positive emotion.

Conclusions

These findings have significant implications for design: positive affect has the capacity to influence

  • the breadth of options considered;
  • the speed a final decision is made; and (most importantly)
  • the emotional responses induced in potential customers.

Simple changes to your product can have significant results. Each type of product will present specific challenges when attempting to influence the affective system in some positive way, but there are some things to consider regardless of your product:

  • At the visceral level of design (i.e. the aesthetics) simple, minimalistic designs are generally more pleasant on the eye, certain colors are associated with positive emotional experiences, and smooth shapes are appealing.
  • At the behavioral level (i.e. the user experience) there are various possibilities, but first and foremost the product must be easy to use.
  • At the reflective level, designing for positive affect at the reflective level (i.e. the conscious consideration of the product) is difficult, but if you are dealing with an existing brand, familiarity may be a positive quality, so use aspects of previous products to promote reflective processing.

These are just some of the basic considerations when aiming for positive emotional responses, but you must also identify the potential ways your product, in particular, can influence the affective system.

The Take Away

Two information-processing systems determine the human emotional response: the affective and cognitive processing systems. The affective system operates outside of conscious thought and is reactive, in that a series of psychophysiological events are initiated automatically following the receipt of sensory information. In contrast, the cognitive processing system is conscious and involves analysis of sensory information to influence and even counteract the affective system. Affects (i.e. things that induce some change to the affective system) are divided into positive and negative groups. Positive affect has the potential to improve creative thinking, while negative affect narrows thinking and has the potential to adversely affect performance on simple tasks. Emotions are the product of changes in the affective system brought about by sensory information stimulation. Research suggests positive emotions, such as happiness, comfort, contentedness, and pleasure, help us make decisions, allow us to consider a larger set of options, decide quicker, and develop more creative problem-solving strategies. These findings suggest attractive things really do work better, even if this is only the case because they make us feel better when we are using them.

References & Where to Learn More

Hero Image: Copyright holder: the Author, Copyright terms and license: Public Domain

Stephen P. Anderson (2009) In Defense of Eye Candy
http://alistapart.com/article/indefenseofeyecandy

What is an 'affective system'? (PowerPoint Presentation)
www.ruebenstrunk.de/presentation4.ppt

Emotion and Design: Attractive Things Work Better, Don Norman (2002)
http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/emotion_design_at.html

Isen, A. M., & Means, B. (1983). “The influence of positive affect on decision-making strategy”. Social cognition, 2(1), 18-31.

Isen, A. M. (2001). “An influence of positive affect on decision making in complex situations: Theoretical issues with practical implications”. Journal of consumer psychology, 11(2), 75-85.

Aspinwall, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2010). “The value of positive psychology for health psychology: Progress and pitfalls in examining the relation of positive phenomena to health”. Annals of behavioral medicine, 39(1), 4-15.

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