The Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making and Cognitive Organization


Alice M. Isen (1984) ,"The Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making and Cognitive Organization", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 534-537.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 534-537


Alice M. Isen, The Ohio State University

[Excerpted from Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Gorgoglione, J. M. The influence of positive affect on cognitive organization. In (R. Snow & M. Farr (Eds.)), Aptitude learning, and instruction: Cognitive and affective factors, Hillsdale. N.J.: Erlbaum. in Press.]


The idea that I would like to talk about today is that positive affect can influence cognitive organization. Before turning to that topic, however, I would like to provide a bit of background information relating to the study of affect.

For a number of years I have been doing research on the influence of positive affect on social interaction (particularly helping behavior) and cognitive processes. Early work indicated that positive affect leads to helping, and immediately interest focused on the processes underlying this relationship -- on why and by what means feeling good oneself should lead one to be more generous and helpful to others (e.g., Berkowitz, 1972, Isen, 1970; Isen & Levin, 1972). Using a formulation compatible with that of other work in the area, which had conceptualized helping in emergencies as the product of a decision-making process (Latane & Darley, 1970; Piliavin, Rodin, & Piliavin, 1969), we suggested that positive affect might have its observed impact on social behavior by influencing this decision-making process (Isen & Levin, 1972). Thus, interest in the processes by which happiness leads to helping produced studies of the influence of affect on decision making and other cognitive processes.

I wish to point out three things about the kind of affect state studied in this research. First, we have dealt with low-level "everyday" feeling states, rather than with the relatively intense, dramatic states of emotion written about by others in the field. It is well known that powerful emotion can interrupt and influence behavior, but growing evidence indicates that even lo;--level general feeling states are potentially quite influential in directing thought and influencing both social behavior and task performance or problem-solving strategy. Because these states are relatively subtle, and because (being mild or induced by small things) they may occur frequently, the effects that they have on social interaction and cognitive processes may be quite pervasive and important to study.

Second, it should be noted that our research has demonstrated that a positive affective state sufficient to influence social behavior and cognitive processes can be induced by surprisingly small things. For example, some of the manipulations that have been shown to lead to increased helping and sociability on the part of positive-affect subjects and to influence the cognitive processes of judgment and memory, include finding a dime in the coin return of a public telephone, receiving a free-sample note pad, nail clipper, or package of stationary (valued at about $.29) from a manufacturer's representative, receiving a cookie, winning, a computer game, or hearing positive feedback as to performance on a task of perceptual-motor skills (e.g., Isen, 1970; Isen & Levin, 1972; Isen et al, 1978).

Third, the research we have conducted to date has concentrated on positive feeling states, rather than negative states such as anxiety or anger. Most of the earlier literature addressing the influence of feelings or emotional states on social behavior and intellectual performance has focused primarily on unpleasant states. For example, there has been extensive work on the influence of frustration or anger on aggression and on the relationship between anxiety and performance. There has also been considerable research on sadness and depression. We have sometimes included negative affect manipulations in our studies, but our primary focus has been on discovering what happens to people's thought processes and social interaction when they feel good.

One may ask whether we are sure that these manipulations induced affect, and induced the particular affective state intended by us. The answer, based on these studies in the aggregate, is that we believe so. Because it is not possible to measure internal state directly, we have had to rely on indirect methods to determine that affective state was varied as intended (even response on a "mood checklist" or questionnaire is an indirect indicator). But we have used a variety of indirect methods to verify the accuracy of our affect inductions, and we believe that we can speak of having induced positive affective states in this research. In various studies we have included "manipulation checks" on the affective state induced--subjects' ratings of their moods or ratings of ambiguous neutral material such as ambiguous slides or unfamiliar words (e.g., Forest, Clark, Mills, & Isen, 1979, Isen & Nowicki, 1981; Isen & Shalker, 1982). More importantly, however (because one can' L be sure about the correspondence between "mood ratings" and feelings), in the studies taken as a group, we have triangulated on the concept of affect experimentally by using multiple and divergent methods of mood-induction and noting their convergence as we observed their expected effects on dependent measures of interest. We have also provided for discriminant validation in some studies (Isen & Levin, 1972; Isen & Simmonds, 1978), thereby obtaining further conceptual validation of our hypotheses. We believe that ultimately the greatest strength in arguing for the validity of any manipulation or observed effect arises from this kind of conceptual validation. (See Campbell & Fiske, 1959, Cronbach & Meehl, 1955; Garner, 1954; Garner, Hake, & Eriksen, 1956), for discussion of this and related issues.

Moreover, we have conducted our research as naturalistically as possible, in an attempt to reduce the potential for alternative influences such as "experimenter demand" or other experimental artifact. Many of the studies described above were carried out in shopping malls, libraries, railroad stations, and street corners, using subjects who did not know that they were subject in an experiment. This, too, has added to our confidence in the validity of this program of research. All of this in the aggregate leads us to believe that it is affect that has been influenced by our small manipulations and that has produced the observed effects on social behavior.

As noted previously, it has also been found that such manipulations can influence subjects' cognitive processes, such as those involved in memory and judgment. For example, in a study conducted in a shopping mall, people who were unaware that they were subjects in an experiment were approached and given a small free-sample note pad or nail clipper (Isen et al, 1978). Subsequently, when these subjects encountered a different person taking a consumer-opinion survey and participated in that survey, they evaluated the performance and service record of their major consumer products more positively than did a control group that had not been given the free sample.

Likewise, in several studies, using various means of affect induction, it has been found that positive affect can serve as a retrieval cue for positive material in memory, influencing the subset of material recalled from a memorized list or the speed of recall of positive material (Isen et al, 1978; Laird, Wagener, Halal, & Szegda, 1981; Teasdale & Fogarty, 1979). Positive material seems to be more accessible to people who are feeling good.

Moreover, additional work has indicated that the very strategies that subjects use in solving problems may be influenced by the presence of positive feelings. In one series of studies, subjects in whom good feelings had been induced by placing them in especially comfortable surroundings, complete with refreshments, were found to be more likely to use an intuitive solution, or a heuristic, in solving two different types of problems (a physics timer-tape problem and a relative frequency judgment). In addition, in a complex decision task involving choice of a car for purchase, subjects in whom positive affect had been induced by telling them that they had performed above average on a task of perceptual-motor skills differed from control subjects in how they went about making the decision. Although there was no difference in the car chosen, on average, those in the positive affect condition took significantly less time to reach a decision (about 11 minutes, in contrast with the control group's mean of about 19); used fewer types of information, eliminating altogether two categories that all subjects rated as least important; and engaged in less rechecking of information than control subjects. In addition, they were significantly more likely to use the strategy known as Elimination 3'! Aspects, a strategy involving the use of broad categories to eliminate large amounts of data and quickly narrow the field of alternatives.

Detailed analysis of the protocols of subjects in the car-choice study suggests that people :n the positive-affect condition tended to be more efficient than control subjects, rather than more impulsive or careless--they were faster and used fewer dimensions than control subjects in reaching a decision, but the two dimensions eliminated were those described as least important by all subjects; and the ultimate car choice of the two groups did not differ. On the matter of performance in general, however, I want to point out that evidence shows, in some situations, improvement and, in some situations, impairment of performance as a function of positive affect. Whether positive affect will impair or will facilitate performance depends on the task involved and certain other aspects of the situation.

The idea that I wish to focus on today is the suggestion that positive affect results in a change in cognitive organization that among other effects, may enable the more efficient processing observed in the studies described above. More specifically, it has been proposed that positive affect results in an organization of cognitive material such that either more or broader, more integrated, categories are primed and utilized than is the case under control conditions: Under conditions of positive affect more different kinds of material are brought to mind and dealt with at the same time, there is a tendency to see relationships and group things together, and ideas that ordinarily would not seem to bear upon one another are seen as related or similar or holding implications for one another (Isen, et al , in press). The studies supporting this suggesting address it in several different ways. They involve categorization, memory, word association, and creative problem solving.


First, we examined categorization directly to see whether people in a positive affective state tend to categorize material differently. We used two types of categorization tasks--rating and sorting--and two types of materials--words and colors. First, I'll describe the category judgment tasks that used rat 1 r ,s . Eleanor Rosch (1975) has presented work on categorization, suggesting that some words seem more prototypic of the categories of which they are members than do other words. For example, "Robin" is more prototypic of the category "Bird" than is "chicken." People rate "Robin" high if asked to rate it on a scale from 1-10 for degree to which it is a member of the category, "Bird." We reasoned that if positive affect influences categorization such that more material is grouped together, seen as related, and so forth, then the less prototypic exemplars--the fringe, those items that tend in general not to be seen as clear examples of a category--might be more likely to be seen as members of the category by persons who were feeling happy. This essentially is what we have found, in a study that we have now replicated three times, using three different affect manipulations (refreshments, the viewing of five minutes of a comedy film, and receipt of a free gift.)

We asked subjects in the experimental and an appropriate control group (either no-treatment or a neutral-film-treatment) to rate the degree of category membership, on a scale from 1-10, of each of nine exemplars (three good, three moderate, and three weak) of each four categories used by Rosch in her 1975 paper. (The categories we used were Furniture, Clothing, Vehicle, and Vegetable.) We were most interested, of course, in the rating of the weak exemplars-- words like "camel," "feet," "elevator" for the category "Vehicle"; "ring," "purse," and "cane" for "Clothing," and so on. (One would not expect any effect on the rating of prototypic category members such as "chair" as a member of the category "Furniture." The data indicate that people in whom positive affect had been induced in any of the three ways described above rated the weak exemplars significantly higher than did the control group.

The other categorization measure that we used involved a sorting task, and the stimuli used in this experiment were colors (14 2-inch square color chips of equal-interval colors of Saturation 6, ranging from 10 R to 5 PB, in the Munsell Color System). Results of this study were compatible with those just reported: subjects in either of two positive affect conditions, free gift or comedy film, sorted the 14 color chips into significantly fewer categories (i.2., grouped more colors together) than did a control group.


If, as suggested, more material seems similar, if broad categories are used to organize more disparate material, this might allow for more efficient organization of large amounts of newly-presented material that would otherwise seem particulate and overwhelming. Since memory for organized or "chunked" material is better than that for material that is not organized, then anything which facilitates the organization of material should improve memory for that material. Thus, if under conditions of positive affect people create broader categories or expand categories to include material not usually seen as relevant, then one might expect that memory for material that can be grouped together but usually isn't might be enhanced by the affect treatment.

Furthermore, if this superior performance is attributable to the fact that positive-affect subjects realize that the words can be grouped together, while control subjects do not, then one would expect that a category cue should result in improved performance among control subjects but not among subjects in the positive affect condition. (Since the positive affect group would be expected to note the relationship among the stimuli, they, functionally, could be considered to "have" the cue, whether it were presented or not). Space does not allow me to describe this study in detail, but what we found was that relative to a control group, those in the positive-affect condition showed better recall of a set of categorizable words embedded in a longer list. Furthermore, while presentation of a cue to the category helped the control group, it had no effect for the positive affect condition.

Word Associations

The next studies in this series examined subjects' word associations as a function of affective state. The suggestion that affect influences cognitive organization as proposed above implies that when a person is happy, word associations might be expected to be more unusual than normally, as a function of the different organizational structure being employed. That is, if material is organized in such a way that concepts seem more inclusive and material seems more interrelated than ordinarily, then i: follows that a person in a positive state might have a broader range of associates to a given word. Because the pool of associates to a word might be more wide-ranging, on average more unusual associates should occur among people who are feeling good. In two studies, using different affect manipulations (refreshments and giving word associations to positive trait adjectives), we found that persons in the positive affect conditions gave significantly more unusual associates (according to the Palermo & Jenkins, 1964 norms) than did those in the control conditions.

Positive Affect and Creative Problem Solving

Finally, I would mention that recent work suggesting a relationship between positive affect and creative problem solving is compatible with the formulation that is being described here. Because these ideas suggest that people should put things together differently when feeling good, they also imply that in general when feeling good people should be better able to come up with solutions to problems requiring creative ingenuity than they are at other times.

The task employed in studies of affect and creative problem solving was the "candle task" used by Karl Duncker (1945) in his demonstrations of "functional fixedness." In this task, the subject is presented with the common objects of a box of tacks, a candle, and a book of matches, and is asked to attach the candle to the wall (a cork board) in such a way that it will burn without dripping wax on the table or floor beneath. The problem can be solved if the box is used as a candle holder. The box can be emptied, tacked to the wall, and used as a platform for the candle, which can then be lit and will not drip wax on the table or floor.

In two conditions of our study, subjects were shown a segment of one of the films described earlier, either the comedy film or the control film. Subjects in other conditions of the study saw no films. Instead, differing conditions were created by differences in the way in which the items presented to the subject as part of the candle task were displayed. In Condition 3, the control display was presented: a box filled with tacks, a candle, and a book of matches. In Condition 4, the same items were presented, but the tacks were displayed in a pile next to the empty box, as had been done by Adamson (1952). In Condition 5, the control display was used, but subjects were first shown another task requiring innovative solution (the pencil task) and were shown the solution.

Results of the manipulation check (rating of unfamiliar words) indicated that these words were rated more positively by subjects in the positive affect condition than the control condition, suggesting that positive affect had been induced as intended.

Performance on the candle task was improved by the facilitative display condition, the pencil task condition, and the positive affect condition. All of these conditions produced significantly more solutions than did the control conditions, which did not differ from each other.

In a second study, we replicated the effect of the comedy film, "Gag Reel." At the same time, subjects who had viewed a negative affect film. "Night and Fog," did not differ from controls, nor did those in a condition in which subjects engaged in moderately stressful exercise (the step test), included as a noneffective "arousal" condition.

In conclusion, there seems to be preliminary support for the suggestion that positive affect can influence cognitive organization. This proposed relationship between positive affect and more efficient organization, or organization into larger units, might also help to account for certain earlier findings. For example, it is compatible with the often-obtained finding that judgments of positive stimuli tend to be less cognitively complex (summarized in Goldstein & Blackman, 1978, p. 125) and that problem-solving under conditions of positive affect tends to be simplified and efficient (Isen et al, 1982; Isen & Means, 1983). It might account for specifically the kinds of problem-solving that we have observed (and that are described above) under conditions of positive affect: well-organized, as in the car-choice study, but sometimes allowed to depend on the utilization of an inappropriate cue or nonexistent relationship, as in the studies described on use of heuristics. More work needs to be done to examine the details and implications of these effects; but together they provide preliminary evidence that positive affect may influence the way in which cognitions are organized and interrelated.


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Alice M. Isen, The Ohio State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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