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Sad children sometimes learn better

By Massie Santos Ballon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:11:00 06/07/2008

Filed Under: People, Education

MANILA, Philippines?Happy children don?t always learn their lessons well. Sad children, it seems, sometimes learn better. So says a new study from psychologists at England?s University of Plymouth and the United States? University of Virginia.

In the June issue of the journal Developmental Science, Simone Schnall and her colleagues tested the theory that happiness has a hidden educational cost.

The Britain-based Schnall noted in a statement that a happy outlook is good for kids; it?s practically required when they?re required to think creatively. However she added, ?This particular research demonstrates that when attention to detail is required, [a happy mood] may do more harm than good.?

2 ways of processing info

Previous studies, the researchers noted, had already shown that mood influences how adults handle information. Those in a good mood tended to rely on existing knowledge via something called ?top-down processing? to understand new information. Those who felt more negative use what?s called ?bottom-up processing,? in which people start with no preconceived notions and build up their own thoughts and ideas based on what they learn as they go on.

One of the experiments used by other researchers demonstrates the difference between these two ways of processing information. Study participants were shown pictures of a large triangle made of squares and a large square made of triangles to illustrate this point, and then asked to pick the image closest to that of a large triangle made of other triangles.

The adults in a good mood picked the triangle made of squares based on the shape outlined. On the other hand, the adults who felt sad picked the square made of triangles based on the shapes they saw inside the image.

Mood affects info processing

?Happiness indicates that things are going well,? the authors wrote in their paper. ?Sadness indicates that something is amiss, triggering detail-oriented, analytical processing.?

In this new study, Schnall and her colleagues wanted to see if mood also affected how children process information. In their first experiment, children aged 10 and 11 first listened to music by either the musical prodigy Mozart or troubled composer Gustav Mahler, which made each child feel either happy or sad. Once they were in these emotional mindsets, the children took a test that asked them to find various shapes in a series of images.

The researchers found that the happy children took longer to find the shapes than did the sad children. They repeated the test with younger children, this time using specific clips from the movies ?The Jungle Book,? ?The Last Unicorn? and ?The Lion King? to make the children feel either happy, neutral or sad.

Happiness affects test results

Again Schnall and her colleagues found the happy children needed more time to find the hidden shapes on the test compared to their sad and neutral-feeling counterparts. Why does happiness affect the test results? One theory is that happy people take the information at face value and don?t look beneath the surface.

The researchers ended their study by noting that their results contradict popular wisdom about the relationship between a child?s happiness and his ability to learn. Trying too hard to make kids feel good while they learn might actually have negative effects, they said.

?The good feeling that accompanies happiness comes at a hidden cost,? concluded study co-author Vikram Jaswal in a statement. ?It leads to a particular style of thinking that is suited for some types of situations, but not others.?

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.

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