The methods used by the researchers were reasonably straightforward. Over a series of nine experiments, they introduced participants to affect stimuli (pictures and videos chosen to elicit emotions that were either negative, neutral, or positive). Each set of experiments randomly put participants into one of two groups. The first experienced cognitive tasks referred to as a “load condition.” The other groups acted as a “control condition” and experienced no cognitive load tasks.
Participants recorded how they felt while being exposed to the affect images, and researchers analyzed any changes that occurred. While exposed to the stimuli, load group participants were asked to do various mental tasks such as counting backward by fives or even simply focusing on their feelings. After each trial, participants completed recognition tests to measure their recall of the images.
This research approach is a classic example of an experimental study as participants engaged in a series of tests to determine the role of mental resources in the ability to experience feelings subjectively. The researchers sought to determine if there is a causal relationship where manipulating a cognitive load can measurably reduce the intensity of feelings. Researchers paid undergraduate students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem approximately four dollars to act as study participants. In total, they used over 300 participants in the study, with slightly over 60% being female.
So what did the researchers find? Can engaging in a mental exercise while experiencing negative feelings actually lessen their intensity? Five major findings resulted from the study answers these questions and more:
Processing Effect. Although a cognitive load reduces feeling intensity, it doesn’t diminish our ability to process information. In fact, load participants experienced virtually no effect on their abilities to recall the stimulus images.
Varying Instructions. The instructions themselves were not influencing the intensity of feelings. Whether participants were exposed to various levels of cognitive tasks with the same instructions or were literally told to expect the opposite effect, the ultimate results of the tests were the same.
Developing or Mature Feelings. Now that it has been determined that cognitive tasks can impact feeling intensity, does it matter if we are in the midst of feelings already established, or will it only work on feelings as they develop? This study suggests cognitive load even impacts the intensity of feelings we are already experiencing.
Positive and Negative Feelings. Experiments showed that cognitive tasks use resources that otherwise would be used to experience positive feelings as well as negative ones. Maybe this explains why so many teenagers don’t like math class after all!