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Anger Demands more Attention than Happiness

Read time: 3 mins
20 Dec 2022
Anger Demands more Attention than Happiness

People's facial expressions, social media, phone calls, or immediate surroundings frequently expose us to emotional information. Even young children use emotions as a medium to communicate with others. The range of emotions includes everything from joy, surprise and awe to sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. The impact of each emotion on a person's mood varies. Have you ever considered which emotion distracts most or calls for more attention?

Emotional information of any kind receives priority attention, according to previous research. Emotions impact our actions, how we learn, and, ultimately, how we make decisions. We experience that a former emotion can influence subsequent behaviour. But how would such feelings affect our immediate actions, and would they divert us from a predetermined task? Improper processing of emotional information can lead to conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and personality disorder. It is critical to study the response to each emotion so that we can identify which ones consume more attention and are distracting. Such studies are crucial to understanding how emotions interact with attention and perception.

Shubham Pandey and Rashmi Gupta from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay studied the impact of emotions on the attention and perception of humans. They found that processing emotions diverts attention from the specific task at hand, and processing an angry expression consumes more attention than processing a happy or neutral expression.

In the trials that the researchers conducted, a group of participants was shown a face with an expression (angry, happy, or neutral) only for a second. They were asked to identify the gender of the face and respond by clicking the respective button. Here the expression on the face is irrelevant to determining gender and serves as a distraction from the participants' primary task. Next, the participants were shown either a blank screen or a second face on top of the first face and were asked not to respond. The researchers recorded the participants' response time during this process. It helped the researchers determine how the participants perceived each emotion. The method used here is called the go-and-stop process and is standard procedure for such studies.

The researchers from IIT Bombay observed that irrelevant expressions displayed to the participants initially consumed most of the attention required to perform the primary task of identifying gender and thus hampered the ability to do the task efficiently.

The study established two significant findings. First, the expression on the second face has an impact only when the expression on the first face is neutral. If the first face is angry or happy, the attention is diverted from the intended task. Most of the attention is consumed in processing the emotion, leaving insufficient attention to respond to the second face. It means that people are distracted more by emotional information than non-emotional information. 

The second finding of the study was that the most distracting face was an angry one, followed by a happy one and a neutral one. Thus angry emotion utilizes the most attentional resources. For instance, if the interviewer is angry while conducting the interview, the interviewee will likely become disoriented and perform below par.

Since this is one of the first studies of its kind, additional research using different methodologies will strengthen and confirm the findings. Future research into other facial expressions, such as surprise, contempt, and fear, would also be interesting. Similarly, studying facial expressions from different cultural populations and varying magnitudes of arousal of anger and happiness can be utilized. In addition, the study can also be analyzed separately to identify the response to emotional information based on the gender of the participants.