Character  &  Context

Love (and emotion) is in the air at SPSP 2014.

Image of a happy couple looking at their hands forming a heart

By Joshua Buchanan

We all know that our emotions can influence what we pay attention to – just think, if you are angry, you might pay more attention to the driver who just cut you off than the music playing on the radio, and vice versa if you are happy. But what about the reverse? At the SPSP meeting in Austin, researchers took a novel look at whether attention can drive our emotions.


The symposium began – appropriately for Valentine’s Day – with two lovebirds flying into to the conference room unannounced and setting the stage for the talks to come. Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado led off the discussion, suggesting that attending to specific stimuli, especially neutral stimuli, leads to higher ratings of the emotional intensity of the stimuli. That is, when people have a goal to look for a specific object, such as a photo of a pot amongst photos of other neutral stimuli, they subsequently rate the object as more emotionally intense than other neutral stimuli. After ruling out other plausible explanations such as mere exposure or a devaluing of unattended objects rather than valuing of attended objects, Leaf emphasized some important implications for anxious individuals, such as that focusing attention on neutral stimuli may in itself increase the intensity of their anxiety.

Eldad Yechiam of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology spoke next via a pre-recorded presentation, as he, like many others this year, was prevented from attending due to the wintry weather. Eldad took aim at loss aversion, the idea that people place a greater emphasis on avoiding losses than attaining gains. Eldad suggested that people may be truly experiencing loss attention instead. Due to the focus on losses over gains, people subsequently report feeling more negative about gambles with higher losses. However, these negative feelings do not always predict actual behaviors normally associated with loss aversion, as is the case in some small stakes decisions, demonstrating a limitation to the characteristics underlying loss aversion. Eldad was able to Skype in to the symposium to answer several questions from those in attendance.

Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University discussed some of his research examining how people feel after making comparisons between different outcomes. Looking at multiple types of comparisons, Carey stressed that people had a greater emotional response after comparing their own outcome to that of another person (a social comparison) versus comparing their outcome to another possible outcome (a counterfactual comparison). That is, receiving an outcome better or worse than another person’s (rather than another possible outcome) led to a more positive or negative response, respectively. Carey went on to further emphasize that counterfactual comparisons encourage focusing on absolute values while social comparisons encourage focusing on relative values. That is, people making counterfactual comparisons will be satisfied with a pay raise as long as it is more than what they were making previously, while people making social comparisons will only be satisfied with the raise if it is more than what others are making.

Iris Mauss of the University of California, Berkeley concluded the symposium by discussing some important downsides to the proverbial ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Iris presented some research suggesting the actively pursuing happiness can often lead to experiencing disappointment about the amount of happiness attained, a form of ‘meta-emotion.’ Someone with the goal of pursuing happiness may in turn experience less happiness and higher levels of depression. Furthermore, this relationship appears to be causal, as asking people to pursue or not pursue the goal of feeling happy showed a similar relationship. However, Iris did end on a positive note, stressing the importance of accepting all emotions, both positive and negative, rather than purely focusing on the presence or absence of the positive.

Joshua Buchanan is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Miami University. His interests include comparative emotions such as regret, counterfactual thinking, and decision-making. You can contact him via email at

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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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