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At Cornell

“Positive Affect” for Positive Results

Sage Hall

Studying the Effect of “Positive Affect,” or Happy Feelings, on Recovery

Patients Under Study
Isen and Charlson

(l.) Mary Charlson, Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, WCMC, (r.) Alice Isen, Johnson Graduate School of Management / Psychology

Can positive affect and self-affirmation help patients keep up their determination to practice the healthy behaviors they chose to follow? Positive affect refers to happy feelings that are induced by everyday events, which a person could experience in the normal course of a day’s activities. Our research groups [Alice M. Isen, Johnson Graduate School of Management/Psychology, and Mary E. Charlson, Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC)] joined forces to study three classes of patients: cardiac catheter-ization, asthma, and hypertensive African-American males.

Cognitive Processes

My research group at the Cornell-Ithaca campus has been looking at how positive affect influences cognitive processes such as problem solving, working memory, cognitive flexibility (the ability to consider multiple aspects of problems and situations at the same time and respond appropriately to the full situation), and processes that are influenced by these abilities, such as social interaction, negotiation, decision making, and self-control. In previous work, my group found that positive affect fosters innovation, creative problem solving, and the ability to resolve conflicting situations in mutually satisfying ways, but it also reduces risk taking in dangerous situations.

Clinicians’ Diagnostic Processes

The Isen group has also shown that positive affect leads people to be more open to considering all the information relevant to the problem, not just information that fits with a person’s preconceptions. For example, in two studies in which we investigated clinicians' diagnostic processes, we found that physicians in whom positive affect had been induced before undertaking a diagnostic problem recognized the domain of the illness more readily than control participants in whom positive affect had not been induced. Most importantly, this group was significantly less likely than the control group to distort or ignore information that did not fit with their initial diagnostic hypothesis. The physicians in the positive-affect condition, even though they recognized the correct domain of the illness earlier than the controls, were not more likely to jump to conclusions about the specific illness, show premature closure, ignore important information, or in any way show impaired thinking.


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