AN EXAMPLE OF A COMPUTER CONTROLLED EXPERIMENTAL ENVIRONMENT: THE EFFECTS OF MOOD STATES ON THE PERFORMANCE OF A BORING TASK
John L. Tan, Fresno Pacific University
The use of a computer program (Visual FoxPro® v.5, in this case) to create an entire experimental environment has several advantages. Visuals and animations may be employed for subjects to observe, be instructed and to respond to the experimental environment. The computer is capable of making randomized selection of conditions and trials. It has the ability to organize varied and multiple sequences of responses contingent upon a subject’s input. It is extremely accurate and unobtrusive in its timing of events and its recording of data. This paper contains an example of such a method where the entire experiment is "handled" from the beginning to the end by the computer: Research has shown that a small change in one’s feeling may have a significant influence on one’s decision, judgment and other cognitive processes. However, the relationship between affect and tasks that are boring has not been as thoroughly examined. This study attempts to determine if various moods have any effect on the performance of a person while engaging in a boring task. It was found that there is no significant difference between the effects of the various affective states. Possible confounds are discussed.
Research done on the influence of affective states on one’s behavior has left little doubt that even a small change in one’s feeling may have a significant influence on one’s decision, judgment and other cognitive processes. However, the results they yield are not always straightforward. In fact, some appear to be contradictory. Hasher and Zacks (1979), for example, showed that people with a negative mood exhibit a diminished performance on cognitive tasks involving memory. Their findings were supported by Ellis, Thomas and Rodriguez (1984) and Jackson and Smith (1984). Klein, Fencil-Morse and Seligman (1976), Dobson and Dobson (1981) and Perkins, Meyers and Cohen (1988) found a similar tendency among negative mood subjects in problem solving, while Conway and Giannopoulos (1993) found this tendency in decision making.
On the other hand, Petty, Wells and Brock (1976) and Mackie and Worth (1989) found that subjects in a positive mood think less than people do in a neutral or sad mood when involved in message scrutiny. Schwarz (1990) found a similar tendency among positive mood subjects in analytical types of processing as did Isen and Daubman (1984) and Isen, Johnson, Mertz and Robinson (1985) in categorization and information processing. It has been reported also that a depressing mood can lead subjects to manifest a heightened desire for diagnostic information about others (Hildebrand-Saints & Weary, 1989).
Although the mechanics of such influences are still hotly debated, a host of interesting models have been forwarded to explain the foregoing phenomena. Hasher and Zacks (1979) and Ellis et al., (1984) explained that dysphoria occupies or depletes cognitive resources, thus preventing individuals from using more effortful processing strategies that would enable them to achieve optimal performance. Hertel and Hardin (1990) and Hertel and Rude (1991) take the view that instead of limiting cognitive capacity, depressed mood lowers one’s motivation to initiate high-effort processing strategies.
The cognitive capacity view argues that happy mood activates many positive thoughts which take up attention capacity in memory, and thus make a happy person less capable of processing incoming information (Mackie & Worth, 1989). Schwarz (1990) with his feelings-as-information model, however, asserted that happy mood informs the person in that disposition that the environment is safe, and thus reduces their motivation to scrutinize information; while a sad mood alerts the person that a problem has arisen and he needs to be more systematic and vigilant. Wegener, Petty and Smith (1995) disagreed with both the cognitive capacity view and the feelings-as-information model, and propounded the hedonic contingency view. This model proposes that happy people tend to avoid counter-attitudinal or depressing topics in order to maintain their current pleasant state (Wegener, Petty & Smith, 1995; Wegener & Petty, 1994). However, if the topics do not threaten the current pleasant state, happy people would show no such avoidance. A sad person, on the other hand, need not consider the hedonic consequences because he has no pleasant disposition to maintain, unless the topics in question threaten to bring him further down the mood continuum. The way people in a neutral mood manage their situation is dependent upon whether the hedonic rewards contingencies are on the happy or sad side. In other words, whether a person increases or decreases his effort in information processing is relative upon his perception of the resulting hedonic rewards. Likewise, Lassiter, Koening and Apple (1996) concluded that a dysphoric mood could produce bi-directional effects. They, however, explained the phenomena in terms of dysphoric subjects having "a more discriminating cognitive palate" and that their reduced effort "results from failure to initiate a higher unitization rate (i.e., number of actions discriminated) rather than from inability to achieve such a level of processing."
It appears then that mood effects are context-dependent in many cases. The mood-as-input model highlighted this observation considerably (Hirt, Levine, McDonald, Melton & Martin, 1997; Hirt, McDonald & Melton, 1996). Two slightly different versions of this model, however, split hair over whether a single mechanism (Martin & Stoner, 1996) or multiple mechanisms (Hirt, Melton, Hugh & Harackiewicz, 1996) account for the effects of mood.
Mood and Boring Task
For many people, engaging in uninteresting tasks is a daily reality. Sansone, Weir, Harpster and Morgan (1992) have shown that there exists in individuals a self-regulatory mechanism that attempts to make uninteresting tasks relatively more interesting. However, the relationship between affect and boring, uninteresting, repetitive or attitudinally neutral tasks has hitherto not been more thoroughly examined. This study therefore seeks to explore the effects various affective states have on people who are engaging in such tasks. For example, assembly line workers face uninteresting and repetitive tasks daily with little or no chance of varying their tasks. In such a situation, although many questions may be formulated regarding the relationship between mood and its effects, this study focuses on the question whether a temporal mood state will predispose an individual to perform more or less efficiently when faced with a boring task.
In this case, performance is construed as (1) the speed taken in completing a given task, and (2) the amount of errors made during the task. Being "efficient" in this experiment, as we shall see shortly, is not necessarily a positive attribution.
Since uninteresting and repetitive tasks do not demand a high level of cognitive effort, and the hedonic contingency view relies relatively less on cognitive process, I shall formulate my hypothesis based on this view. Since individuals, regardless of their affective state, will attempt to make a boring task more interesting (Sansone et al., 1992), a logical extension of this argument may be that individuals, regardless of their affective state, would attempt to avoid a boring task whenever possible. When it is not possible to avoid such a task, they would attempt to hurry through to "get it done with." Moreover, where there is no aversive consequence, they would not mind speeding through their task even when they know they are making more errors in the process.
My question, however, is in the degree to which such individuals will hurry through given a certain affective state. Would a happy person speed through the process more than one who is affectively neutral? Would a person in a neutral mood hurry through the process more than one who is sad? The answer, I hypothesized, to both questions is "yes", since a happy person will have more to lose hedonically than one who is affectively neutral, and the latter would in turn have more to lose hedonically than one who is sad.
Ninety college students from Fresno Pacific University volunteered for the experiment. Of these, 54 were either from the Introductory Psychology class or from the Adolescence Development class. These 54 were offered extra credit towards their respective courses while the others were not. Of the 90 subjects, 85 completed the experiment, one had to stop because of a prior engagement, and four refused to complete because of exasperation due to the repetitive nature of the task. All participants were given a can of soda after the debriefing.
A computer program using Microsoft’s® Visual FoxPro® v.5 was custom designed for this experiment. The program is comprehensive so that subjects, once led to the workstation, interact only with the computer during the entire experiment. The program includes (1) the random assignment of subjects to one of three groups, (2) the appropriate mood induction, (3) the pre-task questionnaires, (4) the task, which presents a computer simulation of an assembly line of parcels waiting to be pasted with a forward address label, a return address label and a strip of adhesive tape, (6) the post-task questionnaires, and (7) the timing and recording of the events and other appropriate information. (See figure 1, available from the author, for a flow chart showing the logical process.) A pen and a piece of paper were provided for participants to write or draw on.
Each subject was led to a computer workstation in the regular computer laboratory on the campus. The computer randomly assigned subjects to one of three affective conditions, namely, neutral, sad and happy. Sad and happy moods were induced by asking subjects to either write a brief account reflecting the saddest or the happiest moment in their lives as was appropriate. Subjects assigned to the neutral mood state were asked to draw a map of the campus. (Because producing a drawing directly on a computer may require specialized skill and knowledge on the part of the subjects, it was decided that this task should be done on paper. Moreover, the task itself was not a material input to the experiment. What was material was the affect induced by the task as reported by the subject afterwards. For measure of consistency, it was decided also to employ the paper and pen method for the two other induction procedures.)
Due to a programming error, the first 30 subjects were inadvertently assigned to only the sad mood state. The error was subsequently corrected, and adjustment was made so that thereafter the computer assigned subjects "randomly" to the following probability: 45% likelihood to a neutral mood state, 45% likelihood to a happy mood state, and 10% likelihood to a sad mood state.
Subjects were presented with the task comprising a computer-simulated assembly line of parcels. They were told to "click and drag" a forward address label to an appropriate space on the parcels, and likewise a return address label and a strip of adhesive tape. Subjects were allowed to practice doing the task until they were sure of the procedure. Thereafter, the computer unobtrusively clocked every 20 parcels done, and recorded the number of damages, if any. A parcel is considered damaged when a label or tape is not placed within its designated space on the parcel. The task ended upon the completion of 200 parcels. A post-task questionnaire (Sansone et al., 1992) was given to determine if the subjects had, in fact, found the task boring. Finally, a questionnaire was used to identify subjects who might have a prior knowledge or understanding of the experiment, and as such might post a confound. Subjects were debriefed at the end of the experiment.
Analyses of the mood induction showed that subjects assigned to be happy indeed felt more positive (M = 48.58) than those induced to be neutral (M = 44.25), who in turn felt more positive than those induced to be sad [M = 36.19, F(2, 82) = 14.08, p < 0.001.]
A one-way between-subjects analysis of variance (ANOVA) revealed that neutral mood subjects took an average of 1424 seconds to complete the task while happy subjects took an average of 1427 seconds, and sad subjects, 1575 seconds (p > 0.1.)
Out of the 200 parcels, neutral mood subjects generated an average of 37.8 damages while happy subjects generated an average of 24.4 damages, and sad subjects, 40.9. However, no significant differences were found in all the above findings (p > 0.2 for amount of damages.)
It appeared that there was no significant difference across mood when it comes to speed and proneness to error while performing a boring task. In retrospect, however, perhaps the speed of certain subjects was impeded by the frustration felt following an error. Although no aversive consequence was imposed on errors, it had not been explicitly explained to the subjects. Thus, there might nonetheless exist, in the subjects, a perceived or implicit aversive expectation perhaps in the form of dissatisfaction over a poorly done job, or perhaps in anticipation of an aversive consequence. As a result, for example, a happy subject might have worked faster had she known for sure that the errors she made would not attract any aversive consequence. Furthermore, consistent to the hedonic contingency model, a happy person is indeed more sensitive to such counter-attitudinal situations. Therefore, speed and errors in this experiment should have been examined separately, one without the other.
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