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  • Unhappy writers are better writers, says psychologist

    In an article in this month's Australasian Science, Forgas writes, "mildly negative mood may actually promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style." In other words, unhappy writers outperform happy ones. Even writers whose mood is neutral do better. All this suggests that happy writers should be discouraged from writing at all costs.

    I was very unhappy to find that Forgas's article, "Think Negative!", isn't online. To darken my mood even further and guarantee the success of this post, I learned that in an earlier study Forgas demonstrated that a bad mood can generate a better text: "low-intensity negative moods may have a beneficial influence on the quality and effectiveness of persuasive messages, due to the more concrete and externally focused information processing strategies they promote" ("When sad is better than happy: Negative affect can improve the quality and effectiveness of persuasive messages and social influence strategies," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43 [July 2007]: 513-28).

    According to Forgas, psychologists have already shown that unhappy people "are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eyewitness distortions, and are less likely to adopt dysfunctional selfhandicapping strategies." In addition, evidence suggests that being in a negative mood leads listeners and readers to perceive messages more carefully, or, as Forgas puts it in psych-speak, "positive moods may simply lead to less effortful and systematic processing, while negative moods promote a more careful, vigilant and systematic processing style." This explains why happy people read bestsellers, but literature graduate students are always so depressed.

    To this growing body of evidence on the advantages of depression -- did you know that people do better work on cloudy days than sunny ones? -- Forgas adds proof that moody writers produce more effective texts.

    In a series of experiments, Forgas induced sad and happy moods in test subjects by showing one group a happy 10-minute video, while another group watched a sad one, or by asking them to think about something good or bad in their own lives. Subjects then wrote a short persuasive essay on an assigned topic. Trained essay raters determined that the sad participants produced arguments that were significantly better than the happy ones. The unhappy writers argued more concretely and specifically as well, and their texts were more likely to persuade readers to agree with them.

    In a final experiment, designed to simulate more realistic persuasion conditions, participants were first put into good or bad moods by performing a task, then receiving randomly-generated positive or negative feedback about their performance. They were then asked to use email to persuade another test subject, sitting at a computer in another room, to volunteer for another psych experiment. That other "participant" was not actually a person, but a computer programmed to respond positively, negatively, or neutrally to the arguments produced, regardless of their actual content. Trained raters found once again that participants who had been put into a bad mood were more persuasive than their happy counterparts, though both sad and happy subjects who had been promised a reward tended to be equally persuasive. Apparently motivation, in this case free movie tickets, may lower or erase the edge that miserable writers normally enjoy.

    It isn't surprising to discover that in order to improve, writers first have to become more unhappy. After all, lemons make great lemonade, and the literary canon is full of authors who are depressed. It's a commonplace in the borscht belt that unhappy comedians tell the best jokes. And apparently Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, two very negative characters, are great at persuading the public to believe all sorts of nonsense.

    No, what's startling is Forgas's suggestion that his research on writers' moods might also mean that unhappy employees make more effective ones: "Tasks that call for concrete, situationally oriented and bottom-up processing may sometimes be better performed in mild negative moods." He doesn't offer hints for inducing such moods in the office, though giving employees negative feedback even when it's not warranted -- as Forgas did in one of his experiments -- might be one way to go. Replacing managers with computers might be another.

    But making workers miserable isn't all that the new psychology of productivity offers. Don't tell this to your partner, but Forgas also wonders whether negative moods might be usefully deployed in love as well as business: "It is an intriguing possibility that mild negative affect may actually promote a more concrete and more situationally attentive communication style in intimate relationships." If only Romeo and Juliet had known.

    But those who stand to benefit the most from this research are writing teachers. They can forget about Strunk and White, outlines, free writing, or the five-paragraph theme. Research shows that the way to ensure their students' success is to induce a mildly negative state, to make writers even less happy about writing than they may already be. According to the psychologists, it works like a charm.

    Passage from Candide in which Pangloss claims everything is for the bestvoltaire

    The literary canon is full of authors who are miserable pessimists like Voltaire, above, who wrote well because he knew how bad things really were. In contrast, his Dr. Pangloss is a fictional character who thinks he lives in the best of all possible worlds even after catching an STD -- the "it" referred to in the passage above -- that he has traced through a line of sexual liaisons all the way back to Christopher Columbus.

ctirumalai@gmail.com Dec 29, 2009 8:21 am
Philip Larkin (1922-85), whose meat and drink seemed to be sadness and depression, would have agreed. He once said, "Depression is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth." For some fastidious writers composition can be agony. Flaubert, the French master, would sometimes writhe about on the floor in his search for the exact word. Candadai Tirumalai

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