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Moods, Emotions, and Feelings, Oh My!

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Authored by T.M.

Do you ever pause to wonder why you’re in a certain mood? Do you suppose that your emotions and moods just happen? Or could it be that you, yourself, instigate whatever you are feeling? And have you ever wished that you had better control of your moods and emotions?

Recently, I read about a study that was conducted in 1996, called Automaticity of Social Behavior, which broadened my understanding of how our thoughts influence our behavior. Here’s an excerpt from an article on what happened:

John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows [New York University] had [psychology students] complete a scrambled-sentence task, rearranging the order of words to form sentences. For some of the participants, the task was based on words such as aggressive, rude, annoying,and intrude. For others, the task was based upon words such as honor, considerate, polite, and sensitive. The goal of these two lists was to prime the participants to think about politeness or rudeness as a result of constructing sentences from these words (this is a very common technique in social psychology, and it works amazingly well).

After the participants completed the scrambled-sentence task, they went to another laboratory to participate in what was purportedly a second task. When they arrived at the second laboratory, they found the experimenter apparently in the midst of trying to explain the task to an uncomprehending participant who was just not getting it (this supposed participant was in fact not a real participant but a confederate working for the experimenter). How long do you think it took the real participants to interrupt the conversation and ask what they should do next?

The amount of waiting depended on what type of words had been involved in the scrambled-sentence task. Those who had worked with the set of polite words patiently waited for about 9.3 minutes before they interrupted, whereas those who had worked with the set of rude words waited only about 5.5 minutes before interrupting.1

[And that’s the end of the excerpt.]

Did you catch how simply thinking about words related to rudeness actually caused those students to behave in an influenced way? Continuing in the same vein, the researchers wanted to see what effect words that evoked both the positive and negative aspects of old age would have on participants. Here is what happened, taken from a report of their findings:

We constructed two versions of the scrambled sentence task: one elderly prime version, which contained words related to the elderly stereotype, and another, neutral version. For the elderly prime version, the critical stimuli were worried, old, lonely, grey, careful, sentimental, wise, stubborn, courteous, bingo, withdraw, forgetful, retired, wrinkle, rigid, traditional, conservative, knits, dependent, ancient, helpless, gullible, cautious, and alone. These prime words were obtained from previous research that examined the components of the elderly stereotype. In the neutral version, the elderly prime words were replaced with the words unrelated to the elderly stereotype (e.g., thirsty, clean, private).

Participants were informed that the purpose of the study was to investigate language proficiency and that they were to complete a scrambled-sentence task. Each participant was instructed to write down a grammatically correct sentence using only four of the five words given.

After the participant completed the task and notified the experimenter, the experimenter told the participant that the elevator was down the hall and thanked him or her for participating.

Using a hidden stopwatch, a confederate of the experimenter, who was sitting in a chair apparently waiting to talk to the professor in a nearby office, recorded the amount of time in seconds that the participant spent walking a length of the corridor starting from the doorway of the experimental room and ending at a broad strip of silver carpet tape on the floor 9.75 m away.

Participants in the elderly priming condition … had a slower walking speed compared to participants in the neutral priming condition as predicted. [Neutral priming would be where the participants are given words with no “old age” related priming.]2

What do you think this study suggests? And what meaning does it have when relating it to our everyday lives?

Looking at these experiments, and thinking about some of my own emotional triggers, I’m coming to understand just how much words and images can affect how I feel and, as a result, even how I behave. As the study above showed, if you read material that highlights rude and aggressive people, or words that put you in a frame of mind that you’re old, or even if you’re simply reading words that have that tone, and if you are unaware of how such words are affecting you, such words can prime your mind into reflecting the mood or the underlying thoughts that you have just read.

However, there’s good that can be concluded from this, too. Back to the study: one group of participants was told exactly what the experiment was about, and therefore they knew to be aware of the effect that certain words could have on their minds. These participants did not display any of the tendencies that those unaware of the impact the words they were reading were having on them showed.

The apostle Paul had a good understanding of what modern research is now discovering about the way thoughts impact us. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”3 He seemed to know that if we were thinking about good things, this would directly affect our behavior. Really, the safest place for your mind to be is fixed on godly things. Consider this verse in Isaiah: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”4

Words and the way that they can affect our moods surrounds us continually. This is happening even when we are unaware of the connection between our behavior and our input. In the space of one day you might do a number of the following: listen to a podcast; do schoolwork; watch a YouTube clip; read Facebook status updates; get IMs from a friend; chat with your parents, sibs, and friends; read a novel; watch a TV series; read up on your current favorite pop person, and the list can go on and on.

This is not to say that we should be paranoid about input and external influences. Speaking from personal experience, that becomes unproductive in the long run. As humans, we are social beings: we need people, and we are happiest when we have some level of connection to others. Even introverted people are happier with close family and friends in their lives than without. It’s not realistic to try to build a safe and high tower for yourself or pretend that you are impervious to the influence of words. We are all influenced, and fortunately, quite often in happy and positive ways. Even this podcast is influencing you, hopefully in an informative and wholesome way.

Now, what can you do with the information from studies like this? Say for instance, you’re feeling negative. Read a favorite devotional or something else from God’s Word that has been tried and proven for you. Feeling lethargic? Read something peppy, funny, or that will motivate you. Feeling discouraged? Ask for encouragement from a friend.

And try to become aware of how you got into that mood in the first place. What were you watching? What were you listening to? What was the tone of your last conversation? Tried and proven tip from me: if you don’t want to feel depressed, take a break from reading news about environmental pollution, political corruption, or whatever puts you in a bad mood.—At least until you know you’re able to channel those feelings in a healthy way. Instead, read material that will make you happy and feel good about yourself and others.

Watch yourself. Be aware of when you’re heading into a slump, and try to catch yourself before you throw yourself headlong into the abyss of gloom or the center of a pity party. Or if you aren’t able to catch yourself before—be aware in hindsight, and avoid such things that make you feel negative in the future.

Right now, make a list of all the things that you love or that are sure to put a smile on your face. Watch how your mood and your feelings change as you do so. Lastly, share with us in the comments those things that are making you smile right now. Spread the joy!

1 Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely. (HarperCollins, 2008).
2 Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action, John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows, excerpts.
3 Philippians 4:8 (ESV).
4 Isaiah 26:3 (ESV).

Read by Stephen Larriva. Music by Simon W. Copyright © 2012 by The Family International

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