New study shows measures people take to protect their good mood

What does it take to stay in a good mood?

In short: Once happy, steer clear of choices that could invite in negative feelings.

According to new research from Case Western Reserve University, people become protective of their good moods—and avoid options and behaviors that could potentially sully their positive feelings.

“Our study suggests people who are feeling positively are less likely to jeopardize their emotional state, and that affects their choices in life,” said Heath Demaree, professor and chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve.

“They wonder: How much better does it get? If you’re already happy, why risk making your mood worse?” said Demaree, co-author of the study, published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology. “Essentially, it’s quitting while you’re ahead.”

The findings differ from some previous research, which has shown that a person’s risk-taking increases after they’ve become successful—known as the “house money” theory. Still, other studies suggest that people risk more when they’re losing, hoping to break even.

The study

To tap into the emotion of decision-making, Demaree designed an experiment using a modified slot machine that produced winnings half of the time. Each participant was given $50 to begin, and was allowed to take home a portion of their winnings at the end of the experiment. Players were asked about their emotions after each pull of the slot machine in order to decide how much of their decision-making was due to their finances and how much was due to their emotional state.

After winning a trial, and controlling for other variables (e.g., the amount of money just won), researchers saw that people risked the least when they were in the most positive emotional state.

Making sense of emotion and choice

While risk-taking behavior has been studied for more than a century, significant discrepancies remain between actual real-world decisions involving risk and those predicted by research.

“We see that choices are increasingly explained with a better appreciation of the role of emotion,” said Demaree. “While these results differ from some previous studies, they do further confirm that life outcomes affect mood and then mood influences subsequent behavior.”

The results can inform further research into how people can control their emotions (anger, happiness and fear, for example) that influence their decisions, as well as their bodies’ natural responses to stress, such as elevated heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and the release of cortisol.

“Increasing positive feelings may help reduce risky behavior,” said Demaree. “These results suggest that people could consider the positive and stable aspects of their lives—thinking of their family, job, spouse—to see their risk-taking behaviors in a more positive context.”

Co-authors of the study were former PhD students of Demaree’s: James Juergensen, Joe Weaver and Christine Moran.

Study: To protect a good mood, people play it safe

Measuring attention to angry faces may help predict depression relapse

Up to 80 percent of individuals with a past history of depression will get depressed again in the future. However, little is known about the specific factors that put these people at risk. New research suggests that it may be due to the things you pay attention to in your life.

Researchers at Binghamton University recruited 160 women—60 with a past history of depression, 100 with no history of depression. They showed each woman a series of two faces, one with a neutral expression and the other with either an angry, sad or happy expression. Using eye-tracking, they found that women with a past history of depression paid more attention to the angry faces. More importantly, among women with a history of prior depression, those who tended to look the most at the angry faces were at greatest risk for developing depression again over the next two years.

“If you’re walking around day to day, your attention will just be drawn to certain things and you’ll tend to look at some things more than others. What we showed is if your attention is drawn to people who appear to be angry with you or critical of you, then you’re at risk for depression,” said Brandon Gibb, professor of psychology at Binghamton University and director of the Mood Disorders Institute and Center for Affective Science.

“I think the most interesting thing about this is that we followed these women for two years, and the women who are paying attention to angry faces are the most likely to become depressed again, and they become depressed in the

shortest amount of time. So they’re at greatest risk,” said graduate student and lead author of the study Mary Woody. “We might be able to identify women who are at greatest risk for future depression just by something as simple as how they pay attention to different emotional expressions in their world.”

To address these types of attentional biases, computer programs and games are being used to retrain peoples’ attention. This approach has shown promise in the treatment of anxiety and is now being tested as a treatment for depression. Woody said that, by showing the important role that attentional biases play in depression risk, this new research highlights the promise of these types of attention retraining programs.

“It’s a very important first step in developing a new line of treatment for people who are at risk for depression and for who currently have depression,” Woody said.

“Some people might be able to use this instead of traditional therapy or could use it as an adjunct to traditional treatment,” Gibb added.
The study, “Selective Attention toward Angry Faces and Risk for Major Depressive Disorder in Women: Converging Evidence from Retrospective and Prospective Analyses,” was published in Clinical Psychological Science.