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Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires

Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires
Barbara L. Fredrickson & Christine Branigan
University of Michigan

Published in 'Cognition and Emotion', 19(3), 313-332, 2005

The broaden-and-build theory (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001) hypothesises that positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires.  This study consisted of two experiments designed to test these hypotheses.  104 University students (66% female) took part in the study. For each experiment, they viewed a film that elicited (a) amusement, (b) contentment, (c) neutrality, (d) anger, or (e) anxiety.  People experiencing positive emotions were compared to those experiencing no particular emotion for both experiments.  The researchers argued that comparing positive emotional states to neutral emotional states provided more robust tests of the broaden hypothesis and that the results would be less ambiguous than comparisons with negative states.   

Experiment 1
Scope of attention was assessed using a global-local visual processing task.  A 'global' bias refers to the ability to see the bigger picture (I.e. a broader scope of attention) and a 'local' bias reflects the tendency to focus in on detail, where one could be described as being 'unable to see the wood for the trees' (i.e. a narrow scope of attention).  The researchers found that people experiencing positive emotion (i.e. amusement or contentment, depending on which film they had just watched), demonstrated a global bias on the visual processing task, suggesting that they had a broader scope of attention than did people who experienced no particular emotion after watching a neutral film.  Unexpectedly, the evidence did not suggest that negative emotions narrow the scope of attention relative to a neutral state.

Experiment 2
Participants were asked to describe in a word or two, the strongest emotion they felt while viewing the film.  Then they were asked to forget the specifics of the film and concentrate on this emotion and imagine it and feel it as vividly and deeply as possible.  They were then given the 20 open-ended statements when they were asked to list all the things they would like to do 'right now'.  People who experienced positive emotions had more numerous thought-action urges than people who experienced no particular emotion.  Furthermore, those who watched a positive film reported more frequent urges to engage in outdoor/nature activities and sport/exercise activities compared to those who viewed the neutral film.  Those who viewed the amusing film reported more frequent urges to play, be social, and have very positive feelings or thoughts, and they also had fewer urges to sleep or rest.  The written responses of participants who watched the negative films also differed to those of people who viewed the neutral film.  Those who viewed the negative film reported fewer urges to eat or drink, to contemplate, and to do schoolwork/work.  Those who viewed the anger eliciting film reported more urges to be anti-social and fewer urges to read.  Those who viewed the anxiety eliciting film reported more urges to be social and to be taken care of by others.

Overall, the evidence supported three central aspects of the broaden hypothesis: (1) Positive emotion broadens the scope of attention; (2) Positive emotion broadens thought-action repertoires; (3) Broadening effects emerged for two distinct types of positive emotion, namely amusement and contentment, therefore both of the emotional states broaden people's momentary modes of perceiving and thinking.

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