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Joe Forgas’ Interesting Yet Shocking Experiments that Propose Sadness Makes Us Think Better

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The writer’s note

I am a huge fan of thrillers. Not only do I watch and read them, but I also write them. And once in every while, I get lost in my imagination. I’m mostly living in my imagination, creating worlds and thinking up thriller story ideas. That said, I read Dean Koontz The Mask and the same author’s Sole Survivor in quick succession. While both are good thrillers with great suspense, they had sad aspects that got me into a place of trading shoes with specific sad characters. In the end, after I put these novels down, I found myself being sad for no reason.

For the next few works I wrote, whether short stories or articles or poems, I found myself creating sad characters, and, I felt…unstopabble. I could just wake up and write, the infamous writers block had nothing on me. I would write clever lines, then later wonder if I’m the one who came up with them.

However, any writer will tell you that this is the general effect of reading, and that’s why writers are heavy readers. Reading sort of unlocks your flow when writing. It wasn’t until I watched something, I don’t remember what, and Joe Forgas and his research on the effect of sadness on the brain got a mention, that I started being curious about the role of sadness in cognition abilities. I quickly looked up Joe Forgas, and as you’re about to see, his work is mind-blowing! 

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Let’s start with a question: Is sadness good for you in any way?

The romantic couples

In the year 1987, professor Joe Forgas showed to some of his students, photographs of two different couples. Each couple was similar in the token that the love birds seemed to be happy and deeply in love. However, each was different on one count. In one photograph both the man and woman were attractive, whereas, in the other, the lady was what we would describe as drop-dead dreamy but the man, unattractive.

Before showing them the photographs, however, Forgas separated his students into two groups. One, he made them watch a happy comedy film, the other, a horror film with sad occurrences. As soon as they came back from watching the film, Forgas asked them to voice their opinions on the couples in the photographs.

The trinkets

At a small stationery shop in Sydney, in the year 2007, something at the exit was unusual. Unlike other days, on this day, a man stood at the exit. Alone. Stopping shoppers and talking to them as they made their way out of the shop.

Inside the shop, the man had displayed a number of different trinkets, including toy soldiers, miniature cars, tiny plastic dolls, and little animals.

Joe Forgas, a psychologist and professor at The University of New South Wales, Australia, came out here and displayed his trinkets to try out an experiment on the behaviour of human beings. Whenever a customer exited the shop, he stopped them, and the conversation went something like:

“Excuse me, please. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“My name is Joe Forgas, and I am working with this stationery shop to carry out an experiment. Mind if I asked a question about your experience while in the shop?”

Joe Forgas then asked the customers to test their memory by trying to recall how many different trinkets they saw near the counter while they were checking out. A simple question, but here comes the most interesting part of Forgas’ little experiment. There are times he specifically played sad music in the shop, while at other times he played happy music. He also carried out his experiment during different weather types. On a rainy day, he played Requiem, Verdi’s sad song, but then on a pleasantly sunny day, he let some happy music funnel into the small shop.

Results from the two experiments

At the stationery shop, Forgas noticed that customers who were able to remember a greater number of trinkets were those who had been in the shop when it was raining and sad music was hovering throughout the shop. The ones who had been in when it was a beautiful and sunny day, with happy music playing, couldn’t remember– or remembered only a few of the trinkets. He concluded that sadness improves memory.

With the students, he discovered that those who watched the sad horror film judged the couples more negatively than those who binged on a happy comedy film.

In his conclusion, our mood affects how we perceive and judge situations. Forgas would later explore more on how sadness affects our judgement.

With more research over years of ingenious experiments done together with his colleagues, Forgas discovered more shocking revelations. Sadness makes you a better thinker.

Later on, in a journal first published in June 2013, Forgas wrote, “Numerous experiments demonstrate that negative affect can improve memory performance.” He went on, “These findings are interpreted in terms of dual-process theories that predict that positive effect promotes more assimilative, internally focused processing styles, whereas negative effect promotes a more accommodative and externally focused thinking strategy.”

Forgas titled his paper, Don’t Worry, Be Sad! On the Cognitive, Motivational, and Interpersonal Benefits of Negative Mood.

Sadness and the brain

We are living in a world where people have tagged sadness as a negative emotion that should be locked out and a spirited fight put to lean a strong shoulder against the door. Because sadness robs us of good moments, and we are living for the good moments. From where we sit, sadness is a ‘disease’.

However, let’s explore other negative emotions. Fear. Anger. Disgust. Jealous. Do they usher us to any benefits? I think they do. Fear makes us alert, and alert is good. Anger can be a defense mechanism. Disgust helps us know what to steer clear of. And jealous makes us competitive. Let me explain.

A look, first, at other negative emotions

I have interviewed numerous people over my so far short journalism career, and I realized something especially when talking to the interviewees we consider the best in their field. Jealousy that rises like a stubborn smoke, from the competition, in small amounts, is helpful. These people who believe that in their respective fields they are the best, or among the best, whenever they lose to someone else, they admitted to bitterness, and yes, some hints of jealousy towards those who beat them.

I am here, and I admit to that. There are competitions I have entered and I got my ass handed to me, in a field I considered myself A-List. In brief unguarded moments, I found myself feeling jealous of the winner and thinking, “These guys are making a mistake, I can do that better than him/her.” But then my other side quickly took the light and I was like, “Okay, let me support them. And clap. True wisdom guides that there is something in him/her, and the best I can do is study their work so that I can grow.”

The thing is, jealousy in small amounts can push you to work harder so that you can come back and prove to the world that they were wrong all along, you are the G.O.A.T.

Just take a case of football, especially the highly competitive English Premier League. Frustrated players who once performed well but later plummeted receive all sorts of criticism along the lines of so and so is now better than you. You are no longer the GOAT. Wise players use that as gasoline to bounce back and prove everyone wrong. But of course, they never miss that period of frustration and directionless and meaningless anger, well, because, we are human.

The point is, these society-classed negative emotions have some good, if their intensity is regulated. Make no mistake about it, however, I am not blind to the ugly consequences of negative emotions. In most cases, they harm us more than help us. Fear scares us out of believing in ourselves and going for what we want. Anger shepherds us into self-destruction or regret that comes after we have acted. Jealousness makes us focus on comparison and that limits the levels of excellence we could attain if we focused on constant self-improvement.

Effects of sadness on the brain

Joe Forgas explains that thanks to fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and advanced research capability, the effects of sadness on the brain can now be understood.

fMRI monitors the brain and detects small changes in blood flow that occur with brain activity. This has helped psychologists understand more the effects of sadness on the brain.

Forgas strongly concludes that sadness has adaptive functions, just like anger, fear, or disgust, and should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.

You might also like: Cornerstone Qonversations: Debunking the positive vs negative myth

Break down of why Forgas believes– backed with research– sadness can be good

1. Improves memory

Earlier on in this article, we looked at Forgas’ experiment at the stationery shop. Customers who were in the shop on a rainy day and while sad music played had a better memory of the trinkets as compared to those who were in on a sunny day, with happy music piped in.

In other separate experiments, Forgas tested memory on the pedestal of yet another interesting area, eye-witness account– the accuracy of the witness. (My intellectual adventures once got me leisure-studying forensic psychology on FutureLearn. I learned that eye-witness accounts can easily incriminate an innocent person, because of how our memory works).

In this experiment, Forgas showed pictures of either a car crash or a wedding ceremony to his participants. He then asked them to think about either a past sad event or a happy one, to alter the mood they were in. When he finally got to asking questions to test their eye-witness account, he manipulated the details in the pictures he had shown them. For example, he asked them whether they saw a stop sign, while there had been no stop sign in the picture.

Participants in a sad mood were better able to remember the original details. Those in a happy mood made more mistakes.

The conclusion was, sadness improves memory.

2. Improves judgement 

Forgas proposes that sadness improves clear-headed judgement, rid of pre-existing leanings on one side.

While humans make social judgements, every day, Forgas says it is sad that most of the time these judgements are biased. His findings suggest that hapiness leads to biasness which then leads to misjudgement. In an experiment, sad and happy participants were asked to listen to statements (recordings) of people accused of theft and then make a judgment based on their ‘detection’ of who was guilty and who was innocent. Forgas discovered an interesting thing. The sad participants, though they mostly made guilty judgements, were more accurate than the happy ones.

3. Increases motivation 

Hapiness is a good feeling. It even, as many have claimed, makes us look younger. And increases our life span.

However, Forgas suggests that while happiness is a good feeling, it mostly hinders our thinking because we want to maintain that good feeling and remain in that space. Being happy doesn’t require much thinking. Sadness on the other hand is a bad place to be in. We don’t want to stay there. Sadness is a sort of alarm sounded to remind us to do something; challenge our current state, bend the metal bars of its cage and free ourselves. When human beings are determined to change a bad situation and environment, they do not relax. They are continuously working to figure out HOW will we get out of this. That causes them to think, and the brain stretches to greater limits.

4. Improves interaction

Here, Forgas admits that it’s only in some cases. Happy people are mostly skillful in their communication. But look at a sad person. Their conversations are deep, untamed, and open. Vulnerable.

I, to some extent, agree with this. Whenever I am sad, I long for a real friend I can just sit with and talk openly whether about my troubles or any other topic.

By now you already know that Joe Forgas is a man of experiments. Yup, he did another one on this.

This time, Forgas made a group of his participants watch a sad film, and another he made watch a happy one. The participants were then sent to a nearby office to request a file. This was secretly recorded.

Happy participants were more direct while the sad ones took a more polite and elaborate approach.

Forgas is not advocating for depression

Joe Forgas makes it clear he is not advocating for consciously induced sadness. He is only opening us up to the knowledge that brief/temporary sadness could be beneficial. Depression, which is characterized by long, endless, or recurring bouts of sadness, is debilitating. And dangerous.

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The neuroscience of sadness is an interesting area of study which opens us to debates on whether Forgas is right or far off the mark.

In the comments section, we invite you to let us know, have you experienced any cognitive benefits of sadness? When is your memory the sharpest and your thinking the clearest: Is it when you are happy or sad?

Also Read: Creativity: The Curse of This Beautiful Blessing

Lesalon Kasaine
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