Overcoming recklessness

Puzzled man

He was puzzled and grumpy

Quite a while ago I blogged about Learned Helplessness and I followed it up with an unsettling video in which at teacher induced learned helplessness in half a class by making them attempt impossible anagrams. So I was interested to find out about another bit of research which used impossible anagrams to get students into a bad mood.

In one of a pair of experiments by Webb et al. (2010) students were given impossible anagrams that they were told were easy in order to get them frustrated and annoyed.

Following this, they were presented with scenarios representing various opportunities for risky behaviour. The grumpy students were more likely to consider engaging in risky behaviour than the non-grumpy control group.

None of this is particularly surprising. It is reasonably well known that negative moods can lead to poor decision-making and unhelpful behaviours.

Some of the students in the grumpy group, however, were able to make better decisions and avoid unnecessarily risky behaviours. These students had been taught to use a simple method of ‘implementation intention’ or ‘if…then’ thinking.

For the week before the experiment the students were asked to think about what they would do to counteract a bad mood. They had to repeat a phrase starting with ‘If I am in a negative mood, then I will…’ attached to various positive strategies such as breathing deeply or thinking about past successes.

This group of ‘if…then’ thinkers was much less likely to make the dodgy choices.

This appears to be another example of the benefits of pre-emptive constructive pessimism. Rather than imagining that nothing will ever go wrong or that things will always be positive, it seems that anticipating negative outcomes and planning how you will deal with them can lead to better decision making.

Webb TL, Sheeran P, Totterdell P, Miles E, Mansell W & Baker S (2010). Using implementation intentions to overcome the effect of mood on risky behaviour. The British Journal of Social Psychology / The British Psychological Society. PMID: 21050527

See more about this paper in the BPS Research Digest blog

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