Posted on 3/19/2018
Gerald (Jerry) Clore is Commonwealth Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and formerly Alumni Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois. His research focuses on emotion and its cognitive consequences. He co-authored The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, a general theory of how specific emotions represent important psychological situations, and how thoughts intensify them. His research concerns the Affect-as-Information hypothesis -- that people’s emotional reactions provide embodied information about the value and urgency of events.
What led you to choose a career in personality and social psychology?
In college, I switched from electrical engineering to psychology. Then, as a clinical student at the University of Texas, I got interested in Donn Byrne’s interpersonal attraction research, which became my focus. In those days, students did not apply for jobs. Instead, senior faculty decided who to recommend for openings. In my case, though unaware of being a candidate, I was informed that I would be interviewing at the University of Illinois as a personality psychologist.
I got the job, and learned a lot in the exciting atmosphere at Illinois. In the spring of my first year, the chair of the social area, a man of few words, came to my office to inquire about my progress. He asked, “What are your plans for a grant?” I gave a vague answer, to which he replied, “What are you doing this afternoon?” I got the message, and began right then and there to write my first successful NIMH proposal. I have been grateful ever since to Fred Fiedler for his no-nonsense directness. Had I been in his shoes, I would have focused on being emotionally supportive of the new guy, which sounds nice, but, in the end might, have been a disservice.
Briefly summarize your current research, and any future research interests you plan to pursue.
Affective realism. I study how people’s affective reactions color their views of things. I assume that people implicitly evaluate whatever catches their attention, and these reactions become parts of our mental representations of those things. Like light, we experience affect mainly in reflection off of other things. Through that experience of affective realism, feelings become beliefs.
Affect-as-information. We recently proposed that affect serves as information, not only about objects in the world, but also about our own cognitions and inclinations (Huntsinger, Isbell, & Clore, 2014). Positive affect essentially says “yes” and negative affect says “no” to current mental content. Since we believe that affect takes as its object whatever is in mind at the time, the impact of affect should be malleable rather than fixed.
Malleable mood effects. For example, positive affect tends to elicit a global focus. But rather than being a fixed connection, it depends on the context. People tend to adopt a moderately global focus by default. Then, when positive affect says “yes” to that accessible orientation, it looks like positivity naturally broadens attention. However, we decided to switch what was most accessible by priming a local focus. Happy mood then led people to focus, not more globally, but more locally. In contrast, it was the sad mood group that attended to the big picture. That happened because sad affect said “no” to the primed local focus (Huntsinger, Clore, & Bar-Anan, 2010). In subsequent research, Jeff Huntsinger at Loyola-Chicago and Linda Isbell at U. Mass, Amherst have found such malleable mood effects in many domains (Huntsinger, Isbell, & Clore, 2014).
Extension to judgment. Recently, that led us to wonder whether the same process influences judgment. Is it possible that affect sometimes acts as information, not about objects of judgment, but about one’s thoughts or opinions about those objects? If one’s existing opinion is highly accessible, then would affect seem to be about that? Yes, although good moods usually make things seem rosier, when initial negative opinions are salient, happy mood leads to more negative judgments. The object of judgment in that study was cyclist Lance Armstrong just after he had admitted to steroid use. Happy mood led to harsh judgments; sad moods to lenient ones. We found the same pattern a year later in judgments of Yankee’s 3rd basemen Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) after he also admitted steroid use. These results dovetail nicely with many related findings about persuasion by Briñol and Petty (e.g., 2009). Thus, when our initial opinions are salient, positive affect seems to make us more confident in them. Currently, we are looking at big data where we find that positive affect shows similar effects on general surveys of attitude.
To sum it up, affect-cognition relations are surprisingly malleable, because the objects about which affect can provide information are surprisingly malleable. This discovery has led to exciting times in our lab, because it suggests lots of related questions for which we don’t yet know the answers.
Why did you join SPSP?
There were lots of reasons to join SPSP when it started, including its value on inclusivity, which was a founding principle. In addition, it quickly became a premier place to present one’s work. Of course, one of the best reasons to participate is to see friends and former students and colleagues, many of whom one gets a chance to see only at SPSP.
What is your most memorable SPSP Annual Convention experience?
Well, I’ve been to too many conferences to narrow down all the experiences of places, people, ideas, talks, lunches, dinners, and late night carousing to the one most memorable. Hanging out with Dan Wegner and company was always a high point, and being an honorary member of Pablo Briñol’s Ohio State posse of former Petty students has involved more than its share of memorable moments. Group and individual dinners and drinks with former students, postdocs, and lab members is always very special, as is seeing them present their work. But so too are the delightful encounters with complete strangers or barely known colleagues that occur regularly at SPSP meetings.
I do recall an evening at one of the San Diego meetings when a taxi dropped Carol Dweck, David Goldman, and me at the wrong restaurant address. Feeling resourceful, we walked to a nearby gas station and hitched a ride. But our benefactor drove a pickup truck with room inside for only two, relegating me to the back. After a long ride, we had a lovely dinner at a fine restaurant, but one of us looked a little windblown and had wisps of straw in his hair.
Outside of psychology, how do you spend your free time?
My favorite leisure activity is sailing. Over the years, (my wife) Judy and I have sailed in such wonderful places as the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Greece, Croatia, and Turkey. I learned to sail at UCSD during breaks of an NSF workshop on multivariate models of impression formation. I still recall the rental guy yelling at me from the shore as the boat approached dangerous rocks, “Push the stick the other way!” In this way I learned a counterintuitive principle of sailing, which is that pushing the tiller toward the fearsome rocks steers the boat away from them.
Part of the fascination of sailing (like that of doing psychological research) is that there is a bottomless pit of such stuff to learn. In addition, the fluency experience of insight from research is a little like the sublime experience of seeing minor changes in sail trim mirrored in the grace with which the boat slices through the water.
Research and sailing come together in the spring when my lab group comes aboard our boat for a sail on Chesapeake Bay. The most memorable of these was two years ago when I performed a marriage ceremony for one of my students and his fiancé as we sailed along. It was made even more special by being a surprise for the rest of the group.
Briñol, P. & Petty, R.E. (2009). Persuasion: Insights from the self-validation hypothesis Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 69-118.
Huntsinger, J. R., Clore, G. L. & Bar-Anan, Y. (2010). Mood and global-local focus: Priming a local focus reverses the link between mood and global-local processing. Emotion, 10, 722-726. PMID: 21038956
Huntsinger, J.R., Isbell, L.M., & Clore, G.L. (2014). The Affective control of thought: Malleable, not fixed. Psychological Review, 121, 600-618. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037669