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Too busy to feel neutral: Reducing cognitive resources attenuates neutral affective states

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Abstract

Researchers often assume that neutral affect is a relatively affectless state, in that it is low in intensity and requires little, if any, cognitive resources to be maintained. In contrast to these assumptions, we examined the hypothesis that reducing one’s cognitive resources would lessen neutral affective experiences. Respondents (1) viewed negative, neutral, or positive photos, (2) completed a task that was or was not cognitively demanding, and (3) rated their negative, neutral, and positive feelings. As predicted, reducing people’s cognitive resources lessened their neutral affect after viewing neutral stimuli, lessened their negative affect after viewing negative stimuli, but did not affect their positive affect after viewing positive stimuli. Contrasting prior assumptions regarding neutral affect, these findings suggest that neutral states possess felt intensity and require cognitive resources to be maintained.

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Notes

  1. When all participants were included in the analyses, all significant and nonsignificant results were replicated, except the interaction between Version and Load on the various affect ratings was now not significant, F(1, 121) = 1.44, MSE = .21, p = .23.

  2. In Version A, but not B, participants completed subscales of the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (Richardson and Suinn 1972; α = .94). Also, in Version A, but not B, after each affect rating respondents rated their arousal level on the Self-Assessment Manikin (see Lang et al. 2008). The scale ranged from 1 to 9, with 1 indicating the highest level of arousal. Load did not alter arousal ratings, F(1, 52) = .19, MSE = .03, p = .67, nor did load interact with picture type to alter arousal, F(2, 104) = .51, MSE = .07, p = .60. Confirming the established IAPS ratings, there was an effect of picture type, such that negative images were more arousing (M = 5.55, SE = .24, p’s < .001) than neutral or positive images (Ms = 6.79, 6.70, SEs = .18, .18), which interestingly did not differ from each other, p = .33, F(2,104) = 29.45, MSE = 50.86, p < .001. The correlations between arousal and affect were: negative affect, r = −.52, p < .001, neutral affect, r = .34, p < .05, and positive affect, r = −.19, ns. The lack of a load by picture type interaction and the minimal correlations between neutral affect and arousal, suggest that neutral affect is measuring something different than arousal in this subset of data. Lastly, in Version B, but not A, respondents rated how positive, negative, and neutral they felt prior to completing any trials.

  3. To examine whether ambivalence could explain the data, we conducted an exploratory repeated measures ANOVA’s with a 2 (Version: A or B) × 3 (Picture Valence: positive, negative, or neutral picture × 2 (Load: No Load vs. Load × 2 (Affect Rating: ambivalent or neutral ratings) design, with Version as a between-subjects factor and all other factors as within-subject factors. The only significant effect was for picture valence, F(2, 234) = 51.83, p < .001, η 2p  = .31, indicating that neutral pictures were more ambivalent than negative pictures, M = 2.10, SE = .17, M = 1.07, SE = .19, p < .001, which were more ambivalent than positive pictures, M = .04, SE = .18, p < .001; all other effects F’s < 1.96, p’s >.16. Thus, ambivalence does not account for the data.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to Zane Adam Patalive, Dian Zhuang, Jessica Sopp and Ashley Przywitowski for their help with data collection. This research was support by a Grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant (0952848).

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Correspondence to Karen Gasper.

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Gasper, K., Hackenbracht, J. Too busy to feel neutral: Reducing cognitive resources attenuates neutral affective states. Motiv Emot 39, 458–466 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-014-9457-7

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