Don't be happy, children
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- Published 9.06.08
If you thought keeping children happy would help them score better in their exams, think again. Unlike what conventional wisdom suggests, happy children may not always make the best learners, say psychologists.
Happy children are at a disadvantage while performing a task that requires attention to detail, according to a team of researchers from the US and the UK.
“The good feeling that accompanies happiness comes at a hidden cost. It leads to a particular style of thinking that is suited for some situations, not all,” says Vikram Jaswal of the University of Virginia in the US.
“Previous research had shown that a happy mood can lead adults to overlook details, but ours is the first to demonstrate that it can have this effect in children too,” Jaswal told KnowHow.
Jaswal, along with lead researcher Simone Schnall of the University of Plymouth in the UK, conducted a series of experiments with children of different age groups. A state of happiness or sadness was induced in them with the help of music by Mozart and Mahler and selected video clips from The Jungle Book and The Lion King. The groups were subsequently asked to undertake a task that required attention to detail. For instance, they were first asked to observe a detailed image of a house and a simple shape such as a triangle and then given the task of locating triangular shaped things in the bigger picture.
Inducing happiness impaired the children’s performance where attention to detail was required. The 10- to 11-year-old children, induced into a state of happiness through Mozart’s music, found fewer embedded figures than those induced into a sad mood. Similarly, 6- and 7-year-old kids who watched a three-minute video clip of a happy scene from The Jungle Book where Baloo sings “The Bare Necessities” could spot fewer embedded figures than those who watched a neutral scene from The Last Unicorn where a knight arrives at a castle, or a sad scene from The Lion King where Samba mourns the death of his father.
“We found that those children who were induced into a sad or neutral mood performed the task better than those induced into a happy state of mind,” says Jaswal.
The scientists reason that this is because these opposite emotional states invoke contrasting information processing styles. While happiness indicates that all’s well and hence triggers a top-down style of information processing, sadness denotes that something is amiss, triggering a detail-oriented analytical processing.
Schnall explains further. Human emotions have a signal function when it comes to the surrounding environment. “Feeling good tells us that everything is fine, and therefore we don’t need to pay attention to the specifics, or worry about details,” she says. “On the other hand, feeling sad tells us that we might be in a problematic situation and, therefore, we need to be careful and pay attention to details.”
Although most of the time our emotions are useful in the sense that they tell us how to deal with tasks, one could imagine that strongly positive moods might make it harder to focus in academic exercises. In such situations, it would be better to be in a relatively neutral mood, Schnall observes.
It is not that being in a happy state of mind is not good for studies. It has beneficial effects, particularly when the tasks require creative or flexible thinking. For example, some earlier studies have shown that children who listened to a happy story later engaged in more flexible thinking than those who listened to a sad or a neutral one.
One important finding from the study is that children in a neutral mood do just as well as those in a sad mood. “But our study does show that artificially inflating a child’s mood may make it harder for him or her to pay attention to details, which could be important in many school subjects,” says Jaswal.
He thinks that the research has a practical implication — parents and teachers need to keep in mind that a child’s mood will influence not just how he or she feels but also the way in which he or she processes information.
So can these emotions play a role in the academic performance of children? The researchers think so. In general any subject that requires a focus on details, or individual components, will benefit from a negative or a neutral mood. “Indeed, in one of our studies we found that it is not necessary to feel sad, but being in a neutral mood leads to as good a performance as being in a sad mood,” Schnall says. In contrast, any subject that requires a creative outlook, the integration of various different things and, most importantly, considering a ‘broader picture’, would benefit more from a positive mood.