Studies show that mood can sway belief

A good mood makes it easier to believe the unbelievable.
Monday, May 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:54 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Do you believe in UFOs? Have a fear of seven years of bad luck after breaking a mirror? Still believe that Santa Claus exists? According to a recent study by Laura King, a professor of psychological sciences at MU, these seemingly irrational thoughts may be a result of your mood.

Along with a faculty member from Johns Hopkins University, King conducted a series of studies testing the idea that people who are intuitive and in a good mood are prone to believe just about anything. The studies, titled “Ghosts, UFOs, and Magic: Positive Affect and the Experiential System,” were published collectively in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“The unfortunate thing about psychology is it says if people just took a logic class they wouldn’t have these (nonrational) beliefs,” King said. “But these beliefs have been around for a long time, and no amount of talking to someone is going to make them go away. We were interested in how nonrational thoughts can come out of otherwise rational people.”

The study consisted of three experiments measuring intuitiveness and mood. In the first study, half the participants were asked to read a short story with a positive ending that placed them in the role of the hero. The other half were given a neutral story about walking around campus. The researchers then presented four 20-second video clips on UFO sightings and ghosts. King said the participants who were in a good mood and scored higher on the measure of intuition were more likely to find the videos believable.

The other two studies examined beliefs in sympathetic magic, the notion that two objects, such as a person and a voodoo doll, share an essential relationship; and social contamination, the belief that one person’s luck or circumstances can rub off on another. In each study, participants with better moods and higher intuitiveness were more likely to believe.

“We were surprised by the results,” King said. “We started out with the predictions that a good mood can make people fall prey to certain things, but even I was pretty skeptical (before the study).”

The results of King’s study can be seen in the world of retail, where shoppers may be more likely to believe a sales pitch if they are in a good mood. Erika Kubsch, assistant manager of The Butterfly Tattoo in downtown Columbia, said mood affects the buying habits of her customers.

“I think people are more likely to buy frivolous things and things they don’t need when they are in a good mood,” she said. “We try to keep things colorful and bright and have happy upbeat music playing in the store.”

Dan Quinn, manager of American Shoe in downtown Columbia, has worked in retail for 30 years and agrees with King’s findings.

“Mood definitely is a big player on purchase,” Quinn said. “There are sometimes people who come in here frustrated and angry and they don’t want to purchase. Then there are people who are happy-go-lucky and say ‘I’ll take it!’ In the spring and summer, people seem to be happier, and that is when we sell the most shoes.”

King said people should use her study to be aware of where their beliefs come from and how those beliefs can affect their actions.

“We need to appreciate the power of belief, and the positive and negative effects they can have on a person’s life,” King said. “Beliefs can be manipulated, and we need to be open to that.”

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