The Effects of Positive Mood and Optimism on Processing Flexibility

ABSTRACT - In this paper our fundamental thesis is that the effects of positive mood on information processing are contingent upon an individual difference variable, namely optimism. We predicted and tested the proposition that positive mood is facilitative for information processing flexibility for optimists but detrimental for pessimists. We tested this proposition in the domain of personal selling. The results support our proposition. For optimists positive mood in comparison to neutral mood increased the importance given to information search and the value associated with creative solutions to sales problems. For pessimists positive mood in comparison to neutral mood reduced adaptability in selling and the value associated with creative solutions.



Citation:

Harish Sujan and Mita Sujan (1994) ,"The Effects of Positive Mood and Optimism on Processing Flexibility", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. Joseph A. Cote and Siew Meng Leong, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 122-126.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1994      Pages 122-126

THE EFFECTS OF POSITIVE MOOD AND OPTIMISM ON PROCESSING FLEXIBILITY

Harish Sujan, Pennsylvania State University

Mita Sujan, Pennsylvania State University

ABSTRACT -

In this paper our fundamental thesis is that the effects of positive mood on information processing are contingent upon an individual difference variable, namely optimism. We predicted and tested the proposition that positive mood is facilitative for information processing flexibility for optimists but detrimental for pessimists. We tested this proposition in the domain of personal selling. The results support our proposition. For optimists positive mood in comparison to neutral mood increased the importance given to information search and the value associated with creative solutions to sales problems. For pessimists positive mood in comparison to neutral mood reduced adaptability in selling and the value associated with creative solutions.

Recently there has been a great deal of interest in the effects of mood on information processing. Moods are generalized feeling states that tend to be short lived (Gardner 1985). Researchers have examined not only how mood affects final judgments, but also the processing strategies of individuals. In general there are two rather contradictory influences of positive mood on information processing strategies. One stream of research argues that positive mood enhances or facilitates information processing. For example, Showers and Cantor (1985) argue that positive mood enhances subjects' abilities to make alternative interpretations of a situation. Isen and her colleagues argue that positive mood facilitates creative problem solving (Isen, Daubman and Nowicki 1987), possibly by causing people to see more interconnections between items (e.g., Isen and Daubman 1984). Positive mood has also been shown to enhance flexibility in categorization, namely the ability to access all levels of the categorization hierarchy and to use both broad and narrow categories in information processing (Murray, Sujan, Hirt and Sujan 1990).

A second stream of research argues that positive mood leads to poorer task performance. Researchers have argued that positive mood is distracting, either because of the many associations triggered by positive mood which crowd the mind (e.g., Mackie and Worth 1989), or because of the positive affect that is generated and which consumes attention (Sujan, Bettman and Baumgartner 1993). Thus, subjects in a positive mood engage in less systematic processing of information which impedes task performance (e.g., Mackie and Worth 1989, Bless, Mackie and Schwarz 1992).

These conflicting results lead to the conclusion that the effects of positive mood on information processing are contingent. It has been proposed that positive mood effects are task contingent, with positive mood enhancing performance for tasks that require or allow creative processing and impeding performance on tasks that require analytic processing of the information provided (cf. Murray, Sujan, Hirt and Sujan 1990). Mood effects can also be contingent on individual differences and situational conditions. The purpose of this research is to examine individual difference variables since these can lead to systematic and stable differences in how positive mood affects information processing. In this paper, our fundamental thesis is that the effects of positive mood on information processing are contingent upon an individual difference variable, namely optimism. Optimism is the generalized expectation that good things will happen in important domains of one's life, while pessimism in the generalized expectation that bad things will happen. These generalized expectations tend to be relatively stable across time and context (Scheier & Carver 1985; 1993). Specifically we predict that positive mood is facilitative for information processing for optimists but detrimental for pessimists. We develop these ideas below and empirically test them.

RESEARCH HYPOTHESES RELATING TO POSITIVE MOOD, OPTIMISM AND PROCESSING FLEXIBILITY

The fundamental hypothesis, as noted above, is that positive mood is facilitative for optimists and detrimental for pessimists on processing flexibility.

Several mechanisms might predict this contingent result. A cognitive perspective suggests that mood affects cognitive organization. Isen (1988) argues that ecologically individuals go through life and learn information in a mildly positive mood. Thus, positive mood serves as an organizing cue (much like a category label) for information in memory and that this information network is quite extensive and varied. As a result of this more complex cognitive network, people in a positive mood bring more divergent materials into working memory, allowing the task at hand to be approached in more varied ways, and thus are more flexible in how information is processed.

This cognitive perspective makes a clear prediction that the effects of positive mood on processing flexibility will be different for optimists and pessimists. It can be safely argued that the complex cognitive structure associated with positive mood should exist only for optimists. Pessimists because they anticipate bad outcomes do not go through life feeling positive (Weiner 1992) and therefore there should be no extensive network of information organized by positive mood (such an extensive information network might exist for pessimists for negative mood, however, we do not examine negative mood states, the effects of which have been shown to be more complicated, in this particular study). Thus, the facilitative effects of positive mood on processing flexibility should be present for optimists. Further, the cognitive perspective predicts that there should be no effects of positive mood, relative to neutral mood, on information processing flexibility for pessimists. (There may be detrimental effects of positive mood, relative to mildly negative mood).

The cognitive perspective can be augmented by considering a motivational explanation for the effects of positive mood on information processing. From a motivational perspective, positive mood can be helpful for processing by enhancing intrinsic interest in the task (Murray, Sujan, Hirt and Sujan 1990), or dysfunctional for processing given information by motivating attention away from the task and towards the positive affect feelings (Sujan, Bettman and Baumgartner 1993). Specifically, we argue that because positive mood maintenance is especially important for pessimists (cf. Sujan, Graeff and Zwick 1994), they are more likely to channel resources towards protecting this feeling state, and hence away from the task, thus hurting processing flexibility. This dysfunctional effect of positive mood on information processing for pessimists is also corroborated from a slightly different perspective, namely that positive mood is unexpected for pessimists and therefore inherently disruptive and resource consuming. In other words, even if pessimists did not voluntarily want to focus on the positive mood, given its unexpected nature their attention would be automatically drawn to it.

Based on these perspectives, we predict that positive mood is facilitative for processing flexibility for optimists, either because it brings diverse associations to mind or because it enhances intrinsic interest in the task. However, positive mood is either unhelpful for pessimists for processing flexibility, because they lack a coherent network of information that is triggered by positive mood, or is actually dysfunctional either because attention is voluntarily devoted to it in the interest of mood maintenance, or because it involuntarily grabs attention and processing resources because of its unexpected nature. For the purposes of this paper, noting that positive moods has different effects for optimists and pessimists on processing flexibility is necessary for developing the hypotheses, but distinguishing between these alternative mechanisms (cognitive and motivational) is not crucial. Thus, we forward the following propositions.

P1 Positive mood enhances processing flexibility for optimists relative to neutral mood.

P2 Positive mood depresses processing flexibility for pessimists relative to neutral mood.

Positive Mood, Optimism, and Adaptability

Processing flexibility in personal selling, the domain of our inquiry, can be manifested in several ways. One important aspect of processing flexibility in sales is adaptability (Spiro and Weitz 1990). Adaptability is conceptualized as being sensitive to customer and situational cues and being responsive in selling behavior. It is based on the notion of self-monitoring or the monitoring of one's social behavior to be in keeping with the requirements of the situation (Snyder 1974). Thus adaptability implies flexibility in processing and responding to sales situations and customers. Based on the propositions forwarded we make the following more specific hypotheses.

H1a Positive mood, relative to neutral mood, enhances adaptability in selling for optimistic salespeople.

H1b Positive mood, relative to neutral mood, depresses adaptability in selling for pessimistic salespeople.

Positive Mood, Optimism and Information Search

An aspect of processing flexibility, a prerequisite in more complex environments, is the importance given to information search. This is because information search is likely to generate cues that can be used to alter behavior is an appropriate fashion. In sales, the importance given to information search is manifested in strategies such as asking customers questions directed at understanding their problems. Given the differing effects of positive mood on processing flexibility of optimists and pessimists, we forward the following hypotheses.

H2a Positive mood, relative to neutral mood, enhances the importance given to information gathering from customers for optimistic salespeople.

H2b Positive mood, relative to neutral mood, depresses the importance given to information gathering from customers for pessimistic salespeople.

Positive Mood, Optimism and Creative Thinking

Another aspect of processing flexibility is the value attached to creative thinking. Creative selling is distinct from adaptive selling in that it requires generating a novel solution to a sales problem whereas adaptive selling requires using customer/situation cues to adjust current solutions. One might expect that a flexible processor values non-entrenched thinking and breadth and integration in thought; aspects of Sternberg's creativity quotient (Sternberg 1985). Thus, in sales flexible processors are likely to support creative strategies for solving sales problems. (Other strategies salespeople could value are analytic ones, previously tried and tested ones, etc.). Thus, based on the differing effects of positive mood on processing flexibility for optimists and pessimists, we forward the following hypotheses.

H3a Positive mood, relative to neutral mood, enhances the value associated with creative solutions problems for optimistic salespeople.

H3b Positive mood, relative to neutral mood, depresses the value associated with creative solutions to sales problems for pessimistic salespeople.

We conducted a study to test these hypotheses. The method and results of our investigation are reported below.

METHOD

Overview

We examined processing flexibility in an interpersonal context. Specifically, we examined how students role playing salespeople would respond to a range of sales-related tasks, including adapting to customers, adapting to sales situations, and valuing creativity in selling. Thus the extent to which students assuming the role of salespeople would demonstrate processing flexibility with respect to their selling function was assessed.

Subjects and Procedure

Eighty junior undergraduate marketing students participated in the study. Marketing majors are interested in selling and tend to find positions as salespeople on graduation. Subjects were run in eight sessions of 8 to 13 subjects each. The sessions were conducted in a lab. Four sessions were randomly assigned to the positive mood condition and four to the neutral mood condition. Subjects were seated at large tables well separated from one another. Three folders, marked Study 1, Study 2, and Study 3 were laid out on each desk. When all subjects were seated, an experimenter introduced himself and explained that subjects would be participating in three separate studies. Subjects were told that it was more efficient to run each of the short studies back to back than to schedule them separately. Post experimental questioning suggested that subjects accepted this cover story.

The experimenter then stated that the purpose of the first study was to validate a questionnaire that measured individuals' social behavior and orientations. This questionnaire contained the Life-Orientation Test to measure optimism (Scheier and Carver 1985). When subjects completed and handed in the questionnaire a second experimenter entered the room to conduct Study 2 in which the mood manipulation was administered. Half the groups were shown a five minute video clip designed to put people in a happy mood. The other groups were shown a five minute video clip designed to put people in a neutral mood (Mackie and Worth 1989). After viewing the clips, subjects filled in scales designed to assess their mood state. The second experimenter then left the room.

The third study was a questionnaire to assess how they might behave in the future while working at a selling job. This questionnaire assessed subjects adaptability in selling behavior (Spiro and Weitz 1990). It also assessed their inclination to gather information from a hypothetical customer who backed out of a deal (Wagner, Rashotte and Sternberg 1994). Finally, it assessed the importance they gave to creativity in sales activities (Sternberg 1985).

After subjects were done with all three studies they were debriefed. The procedure took about an hour to administer.

Independent Variables

Mood. Mood was induced in the second "study." Subjects were told that they would be participating in a short advertising study in which they needed to rate a segment of a television program. The positive mood subjects saw a spoof on job interviews and the neutral mood subjects saw a documentary on the appropriate care and use of wine. Subjects then responded to questions about how the program made them feel (four questions to measure mood) and about the quality of the video clips (filler questions). The four 7-point bipolar scales (e.g., sad-happy) to measure mood were combined (coefficient alpha=0.86).

Optimism. To assess subjects' optimistic versus pessimistic disposition they were administered the Life-Orientations test (Scheier and Carver 1985). This test consists of 12 questions, four of which serve as fillers. An example of the eight items that measure the disposition is: "I'm always optimistic about the future." An example of a reverse coded item is: "Things never work out the way I want them to." Subjects responded on a 7-point agree(7)-disagree(1) scale. The psychometric properties of this eight item scale has been previously evaluated; it has been found to have adequate internal consistency, test-retest reliability, and convergent and discriminant validity (Scheier and Carver 1985; 1993). We evaluated the internal reliability of the scale and found coefficient alpha to be 0.86. We divided responses at the median to distinguish between optimists and pessimists. Our sample median turned out to be 4.75, close to the median of 5.0 reported by Sujan, Graeff and Zwick (1994).

Dependent Variables

The measures are listed in the order in which they were collected.

Adaptability. Subjects were asked to assume that they had been working in the field for a year and rate 16 statements on 7-point agree-disagree scales for how well they described their style of selling. The 16 items (Spiro and Weitz 1990) assessed the tendency to alter sales behavior during a customer interaction or across customer interactions based on the nature of the selling situation. We found coefficient alpha to be 0.90.

Importance Given to Information Search. To assess the importance subjects gave to gathering information they were presented with a scenario in which a potential customer backs out of a deal for no apparent reason (Wagner, Rashotte and Sternberg 1994). Subjects were asked to indicate how likely it was that in this situation they would: (1) accept the customer's decision; (2) ask the customer why he is not ready to buy today; and (3) ask several "what if" questions to find out why the customer is stalling. Responses were made on 7-point scales anchored at "not at all likely" ("1") and "very likely" (7"). Responses to the first item (reversed) were combined with responses to the second and third items to form a scale. The internal reliability of this scale was found to be 0.66.

Importance Given to Creativity. To assess the importance given to creativity in sales behavior subjects were asked to imagine that they had been in the field for six years and were helping their sales manager in hiring new recruits. Profiles of three candidates were given and subjects were asked to evaluate the potential performance of each candidate on a the first candidate was constructed so as to make him a creative person (e.g., "is always thinking"; "builds castles in the sky"). The profile of the second candidate was constructed so as to make him an intelligent person (e.g., "has rationality or the ability to reason clearly"; "tends to set attainable goals and accomplish them"). The profile of the third candidate was constructed so as to make him a wise person (e.g., ""knows self best"; "is fair"). (See Sternberg (1985) for definitions of creativity, intelligence and wisdom, and the development of these measures). Subjects' ratings were formulated into two indices. The first index, which compared the importance given to creativity with that given to intelligence was the difference between the evaluations of the first and second candidate. The second index which compared the importance given to creativity with that given to wisdom, was the difference between the evaluations of the first and third candidate.

RESULTS

The results were analyzed using a two (mood: positive/neutral) by two (optimism: optimists/pessimists) between-subject analysis of variance design. Since prior hypotheses were made, means on manipulation checks and dependent measures were directly compared with contrasts using the mean square error from the overall analysis of variance table. The degrees of freedom for the t-statistics of the contrasts are 76. The results are shown in the Table.

Mood Checks

The two mood conditions were found to be significantly different from one another (positive vs. neutral mood: 5.4 vs. 4.5, t (76)=3.6, p<.01). Further, this difference held for both optimists (positive vs. neutral mood: 5.4 vs. 4.5, t (76)=2.7, p<.01) and pessimists (positive vs. neutral mood: 5.3 vs. 4.3, t (76)=2.7, p<.01). In addition, no mood differences were found between optimists and pessimists in either the positive (5.4 vs. 5.3) or neutral (4.5 vs. 4.3) mood conditions.

Adaptability

Positive mood, relative to neutral mood, was expected to enhance adaptability for optimists (Hla), but depress it for pessimists (H1b). Thus a mood by optimism interaction was predicted. However, this interaction was not significant (F (1,76)=1.4, p<.25). There were no effects of mood on adaptability for optimists (5.6 vs. 5.5 in positive and neutral mood), thus Hla was not supported. There was a directional effect of mood on adaptability for pessimists, with positive mood depressing adaptability (4.9 vs. 5.3, t(76)=1.8, p<.07). Thus there was directional, but not statistical support for H1b.

Information Search

Positive mood relative to neutral mood was expected to enhance information search for optimists (H2a), but depress it for pessimists (H2b). Thus a mood by optimism interaction was predicted. However this interaction was not significant (F (1,76)=1.4, p< .25). There was a directional effect of mood on information search for optimists, with positive mood enhancing information search (5.3 vs. 4.9, t (76)=1.2 p<.12). Thus there was directional, but not statistical support for H2a. There was no effect of mood on information search for pessimists (4.6 vs. 4.8 for positive and neutral mood), thus H2b was not supported.

Creativity

Positive mood relative to neutral mood was expected to enhance creativity for optimists (H3a) but depress it for pessimists (H3b). Thus a mood by optimism interaction was predicted. This interaction was significant for both creativity indices (Index 1 (Creativity relative to Intelligence)=F (1, 76)=7.4, p<.01; Index 2 (Creativity relative to Wisdom=F (1, 76)=4.9, p<.05). The effects for optimists and pessimists were as hypothesized. Positive mood relative to neutral mood enhanced the importance given to creativity for optimists (Index 1: 6.4 vs. 4.8, t (76)=1.9, p<.05; Index 2: 6.7 vs. 5.7, t (76)=1.2, p<.12) and depressed it for pessimists (Index 1: 4.7 vs. 6.6, t (76)=2.2 , p< .05; Index 2: 5.5 vs. 7.2, t (76)=2.0 p<.05). Thus both H3a and H3b were supported.

TABLE

DISCUSSION

Though the results were weak, perhaps due to the small sample size, in all cases where significant or directional results were obtained the findings support the notion that positive mood relative to neutral mood depresses processing flexibility for pessimists but enhances it for optimists. For pessimists, positive mood, in comparison to neutral mood, reduced adaptability and creativity and left information search unchanged. For optimists, positive mood in comparison to neutral mood increased information search and creativity and left adaptability unchanged. The findings are thus suggestive of the effects of mood on information processing being contingent on individual differences, in particular on optimism.

Another set of comparisons also verify the notion that positive mood is more beneficial for optimists than pessimists. A comparison of optimists and pessimists in the positive mood condition reveals that optimists were uniformly more flexible than pessimists on all measures (Adaptability: 5.6 vs. 4.9, t (76)=3.2, p< .01; Information Search: 5.3 vs. 4.6, t (76)=2.1, p< .05; Creativity Index 1: 6.4 vs. 4.7, t (76)=1.9, p<.05; Creativity Index 2: 6.7 vs. 5.5, t (76)=1.5, p<.08).

Future research could address the mechanisms underlying these contingent results. We suggested that the differential effects of mood on optimists and pessimists could be explained both cognitively and motivationally. Including the examination of negative mood effects and collecting process measures in future studies would help specify the mechanisms.

Limitations

Despite the limitations of the research context-a student sample (which may differ in their average level of optimism relative to salespeople populations) and a study limited by the artificiality of the sales situation-we believe that the research potentially has implications for other populations and other tasks. Specifically, one can argue that such processing flexibility, i.e., adapting to other individuals and situations and valuing creativity in problem solving is equally important for consumer related tasks. Such tasks would include consumers' adapting to salespeople and other family members, and using creativity in solving consumption problems (e.g., conflict that arises from different goals of family members). In further research we aim to test information processing flexibility with other population samples, especially in the context of consumer behavior tasks.

Implications

Finally, though more research is needed to corroborate and fully explain our findings, and to extend these findings beyond the sales domain, the research presented here has potentially important implications for consumer behavior issues. From a public policy perspective, much of the designing of marketing environments (retail stores, television programs) is geared towards putting people in a happy mood. Yet, this might actually hurt the processing abilities of the less optimistic (more pessimistic) half of the population. From a managerial perspective too putting people in a happy mood may not be uniformly successful. In fact, it is likely to help only more creative product offerings (relative to more prosaic and standard ones) and only among the more optimistic consumers. Clearly more research and validation is needed, but our findings are provocative and add to the growing evidence that the effects of mood on information processing are contingent and need to be carefully monitored, especially in the design of real-world environments

REFERENCES

Bless, Herbert, Diane M. Mackie, and Norbert Schwarz (1992), "Mood Effects on Attitude Judgments: Independent Effects of Mood Before and After Message Elaboration," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63 (October), 585-95.

Gardner, Meryl P. (1985), "Mood State and Consumer Behavior: A Critical Review," Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 281-300.

Isen, Alice M. (1988), "Some Ways in Which Affect Influences Cognitive Processes: Implications for Advertising and Consumer Behavior." in A. M. Tybout and P. Cafferata (Eds.), Advertising and Consumer Psychology (pp. 91-117), New York: Lexington Books.

Isen, Alice M. and Kimberly A. Daubman (1984), "The Influence of Positive Affect on the Perceived Organization of Components of Self." Unpublished manuscript, University of Maryland, Catonsville.

Isen, Alice M., Kimberly A. Daubman, and Gary P. Nowicki (1987), "Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,, 52, 1122-1131.

Mackie, Diane M., and Leila T. Worth (1989), "Processing Deficits and the Mediation of Positive Affect in Persuasion," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 27-40.

Murray, Noel, Harish Sujan, Edward R. Hirt, and Mita Sujan (1990), "The Influence of Mood on Categorization: A Cognitive Flexibility Interpretation," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59 (No. 3), 411-425.

Scheier, Michael F. and Charles S. Carver (1985), "Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies," Health Psychology, 4 (No. 3), 219-247.

Scheier, Michael F. and Charles S. Carver (1993), "On the Power of Positive Thinking: Benefits of Being Optimistic," Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2 (1) 26-30.

Showers, Carolin and Nancy Cantor (1985), "Social Cognition: A Look at Motivated Strategies," Annual Review of Psychology, 36, 275305.

Snyder, Mark (1974), "Self-Monitoring of Expressive Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30 (No. 4), 526-537.

Spiro, Roseann L. and Barton A. Weitz (1990), "Adaptive Selling: Conceptualization, Measurement and Nomological Validity," Journal of Marketing Research, 27 (February), 61-69.

Sternberg, Robert J. (1985), "Implicit Theories of Intelligence, Creativity, and Wisdom," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49 (No. 3), 607-627.

Sujan, Harish, Timothy R. Graeff and Rami Zwick (1994), "The Power of Positive Thinking and Feeling: Optimism and Happy Mood in Sales Negotiations," manuscript.

Sujan, Mita, James R. Bettman and Hans Baumgartner (1993), "Influencing Consumer Judgments Using Autobiographical Memories: A Self-Referencing Perspective," Journal of Marketing Research, 30 (November), 422-436.

Wagner, Richard K., Carol A. Rashotte and Robert J. Sternberg (1994), "Tacit Knowledge in Sales: Rules of Thumb for Selling Anything to Anyone," manuscript.

Weiner, Bernard (1992). Human Motivation: Metaphors, Theories and Research. Sage Publications: Newbury Park, Ca.

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Authors

Harish Sujan, Pennsylvania State University
Mita Sujan, Pennsylvania State University



Volume

AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1994



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