Emotion and Social Cognition


The literature indicates that affect plays an important role in our lives such that it directly and indirectly influences decision-making, judgments, relationships, and cognition (Keltner & Lerner, 2010).  Further, affect is expressed in a variety of ways including through body language, nonverbal vocalizations, as well as verbally, which can unconsciously alter our interpersonal relationships with others.  Consider, for instance, the fake smile.  How do we know when someone is not being sincere or genuine?  In these instances, genuine laughter or humor expressed in a sincere smile involves specific facial muscle movements that “tend to be brief (lasting between 1 and 5 seconds, symmetrical, and hard to produce voluntarily).  A genuine smile of pleasure…is marked by these properties and serves as a reliable indicator of positive emotion; by contrast, polite smiles that mask negative emotions do not tend to possess these temporal and morphological properties and are less reliable indicators of positive states” (Keltner & Lerner, 2010, p. 322).  It is usually fairly easy to determine which photographs of children have been staged (class pictures) versus taken during impromptu moments (during field trips).

Delving into the influence of affect on decision-making, I reviewed an article regarding emotional arousal and overeating in restrained eaters (Cools, Schotte, & McNally, 1992).  In this study, 91 introductory psychology students were randomly assigned to watch one of three movies (neutral, horror, and comedy) designed to manipulate mood.  The dependent variable was food intake as measured by the amount of popcorn ingested.  Each participant completed the Profile of Mood States and Visual Analogue Mood Scales Questionnaires.  Restrained eaters defined as individuals who reduce caloric intake to prevent becoming overweight, significantly increased food intake during the negative mood condition, and to a lesser extent the positive mood condition.  Nonrestrained eaters did not exhibit these effects.  Accordingly, the researchers determined that although affect was related to overeating in restrained eaters, valence of the effect was not the overriding component.

These findings may be more easily understood from parallel research related to risky decision making and affect (Bruyneel, DeWitte, Franses, & DeKimpe, 2009).  Accordingly, they posited a cognitive depletion hypothesis explicating why individuals engage in risky decisions.  Specifically, their studies determined that participants expended cognitive resources attempting mood repair strategies, which thereby depleted same making them unavailable to make important decisions.  Application of the depletion hypothesis to the study at hand, it is possible that participants in either the positive or negative mood induction condition utilized cognitive resources as they watched the movie.  In the negative mood condition, the participants cognitively sought to feel less anxious, frightened, or insecure.  In the positive mood condition, the participants may have made social comparisons between actors or situations in the movie relative to their own circumstances.  In either event, cognitive resources normally allocated towards retraining food intake were otherwise indisposed resulting in increased food intake.

It would seem from the above literature reviewed, as well as our other resources not fully discussed herein, that affect is a social construction.



Bruyneel, S. D., DeWitte, S., Franses, P. H., & DeKimpe, M. G. (2009).  I felt low and my purse feels light: Depleting mood regulation attempts affect risk decision making.  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 22, 153-170.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/bdm

Cools, J., Scottie, D. E., & McNally, R. J. (1992).  Emotional arousal and overeating in restrained eaters.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(2), 348-351.  Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1583231

Keltner, D., & Lerner, J. S. (2010).  Emotion.  In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th, vol. 1 ed., pp. 317-352).  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


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