Mood Affects the Way you Focus in Tasks

Mood state, different from emotion, is a low-intensity, diffuse, and relatively enduring affective state. People are in a mood as soon as they wake up and could be, for instance, cheerful, irritated, hopeful, gloomy… etc., with non-specific causes. Given the relatively enduring and long-lasting nature, people carry out daily tasks while in a certain mood. It is important to understand the effects of mood, because research has shown that mood states permeate many levels of information processing. This is the case both in obvious ways, such as prioritizing access for mood-congruent content, and also in non-obvious ways, such as loosening cognitive control to include distantly related semantic associates.

Because of the high speed, incrementality, and complex interweaving of the various processes involved, much of the relevant work on mood effects in language processing has used scalp EEG (Electroencephalography)—electrical activity recorded via sensors on the scalp—to obtain the millisecond-by-millisecond temporal resolution needed. Similar to studies of mood on general cognition, EEG studies of mood on language have shown that mood not only affects the processing of language content but also the styles/modes of processing of readers or listeners.

How your mood affects the way you process language

Vicky Lai, a UArizona assistant professor of psychology and cognitive science, worked with collaborators in the Netherlands to explore how people’s brains react to language when they are in a happy mood versus a negative mood.

Lai and her study co-authors set out to manipulate study participants’ moods by showing them clips from a sad movie, or a funny television show. A computerized survey was used to evaluate participants’ moods before and after watching the clips. 

While the funny clips did not impact participants’ moods, the sad clips succeeded in putting participants in a more negative mood, the researchers found.

The participants then listened to a series of emotionally neutral audio recordings of four-sentence stories that each contained a “critical sentence” that either supported or violated default, or familiar, word knowledge. That sentence was displayed one word at a time on a computer screen, while participants’ brain waves were monitored by EEG, a test that measures brain waves.

They found that when participants were in a negative mood, based on their survey responses, they showed a type of brain activity closely associated with re-analysis.

By design, the study participants were all women, because Lai and her colleagues wanted to align their study with existing literature that was limited to female participants. Lai said future studies should include more diverse gender representation.

The team showed that when people are in a negative mood, they are more careful and analytical. They scrutinize what’s actually stated in a text, and they don’t just fall back on their default world knowledge.


Vicky Tzuyin Lai, Jos van Berkum, Peter Hagoort. Negative affect increases reanalysis of conflicts between discourse context and world knowledge. Frontiers in Communication, 2022; 7 DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2022.910482

University of Arizona. (2023, January 13). How your mood affects the way you process language: When you’re in a bad mood, you might want to focus on tasks that are more detail-oriented, such as proofreading. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 16, 2023 from