Do the Math: Cognitive Load Attenuates Negative Feelings

Last October (2008), a large email provider launched a new application, the so-called mail goggles, that requires people to quickly solve five moderately complex math problems before they are allowed to send out any email. By default, these mail goggles are only active late night on the weekend (which led some people to rename this application ‘Beer Goggles’), but it can be adjusted to any self-chosen time window. The application is meant to withhold people from sending emails they would later regret.

Why should arithmetic be effective in preventing people from sending emotional emails? As one of the application’s engineers argues, people are especially likely to become emotional when intoxicated. Because solving math problems is not an easy task when one isn’t entirely sober, the equations thus form an extra barrier against impulsive drunkards venting their frustrations. But the effectiveness of mail goggles may be as much about the effort of doing math as it is about getting the answer right. That is, recent experimental findings have demonstrated that performing a cognitive task can take the edge of negative emotional responses and help people put things into a more neutral perspective ( Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990; Van Dillen & Koole, 2007). Thus, even when people successfully pass the math obstacle, they may still be less inclined to send out any emotional email because doing the math has eased their minds. The idea is straightforward: stuff your head with numbers, instead of irrational ideas about getting back together with your ex.

But how exactly can numbers replace feelings? Research suggests it is because both cognitive tasks and emotional responses make use of the same limited mental resources (Baddeley, 2007; Siemer, 2005; Van Dillen & Koole, 2007). Granted that this limitation has certain drawbacks (most people can’t call, drive, and eat simultaneously), it may have some benefits as well. That is, the resources that are used to perform a cognitive task are no longer available for emotional processes. Accordingly, people can rid themselves from unwanted feelings by engaging in a cognitive activity, such as doing math equations (Van Dillen & Koole, 2007), playing a game of Tetris ( Holmes, James, Coode-Bate, & Deeprose , 2008), visualizing scenes such as sitting in a double-decker bus driving down the street (Rusting & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1998), sorting cards ( Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990), responding to colored lights ( Christenfeld, 1997), or filling out bogus questionnaires ( Glynn et al., 2002).

Not All Distractions Are Created Equal

Whereas a diverse range of cognitive tasks can distract people from their negative feelings, not just any task is equally effective. For example, a simple motor task (such as walking back and forth) less successfully distracts people from a depressive mind state than a more cognitive task (sorting countries from most to least industrialized; Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990). Likewise, simply showing people positive pictures does not alleviate people’s negative moods, whereas combining these pictures with a short riddle does ( Strick, Holland, Van Baaren & Van Knippenberg, under review). Because simple or over learned activities like walking and passive viewing can be performed relatively automatically, they do not rely on people’s limited mental resources (Bargh, 1994; Saling & Phillips, 2007). As a consequence, performing these activities hardly competes with emotional processing.


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