Current Directions in Psychological
22(3) 225 –232
© The Author(s) 2013
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Humans are a moody species, and our ever-changing
moods serve as helpful input informing our cognitive and
motivational strategies (Adolphs & Damasio, 2001;
Forgas, Haselton, & von Hippel, 2007). Although dyspho-
ria has always been with us and has stimulated many of
the greatest achievements of the human spirit, our cur-
rent cultural epoch is characterized by a unilateral
emphasis on the benefits of happiness (Gruber, 2011;
Whippman, 2012). Yet, negative mood remains an essen-
tial component of our affective repertoire, and experi-
ences of temporary dysphoria have always been
considered normal in previous historical periods. From
classical Greek tragedies through Shakespeare to the
works of Beethoven, Checkhov, Ibsen, and the great nov-
els of the 19th century, evoking and exploring the land-
scape of sadness has long been recognized as instructive
Fortunately, the adaptive functions of negative mood
are now receiving growing attention in psychology
(Forgas & Eich, in press). It is the effects of moods rather
than distinct emotions that are of interest here, as moods
are more common, are more enduring, and produce
more uniform and reliable consequences than do more
context-specific emotions. Moods may be defined as low-
intensity, diffuse, and relatively enduring affective states
without a salient antecedent cause and, therefore, little
conscious cognitive content. In contrast, emotions are
more intense, are short-lived, and have a definite cause
and conscious cognitive content (Forgas, 1995, 2002).
In this article, I review extensive evidence from our
laboratory showing that negative moods often recruit a
more attentive, accommodating thinking style that pro-
vides superior outcomes whenever externally oriented,
inductive processing is required (Forgas & Eich, in press),
consistent with the principle that all affective states exist
“for the sake of signalling [sic] states of the world that
have to be responded to” (Frijda, 1988, p. 354).
Background and Theories
Following major advances in physiology and neurosci-
ence, it is now known that affect is often an essential and
adaptive component of responding to situations. Current
theories identify two kinds of affective influences: (a)
XXX10.1177/0963721412474458ForgasDon’t Worry, Be Sad!
Joseph P. Forgas, School of Psychology, University of New South
Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia
Don’t Worry, Be Sad! On the Cognitive,
Motivational, and Interpersonal Benefits
of Negative Mood
Joseph P. Forgas
School of Psychology, University of New South Wales
This article reviews recent evidence for the benefits of negative affect for thinking and behavior, consistent with
evolutionary theories suggesting an adaptive function for all affective states. Numerous experiments demonstrate that
negative affect can improve memory performance, reduce judgmental errors, improve motivation, and result in more
effective interpersonal strategies. These findings are interpreted in terms of dual-process theories that predict that
positive affect promotes more assimilative, internally focused processing styles, whereas negative affect promotes a
more accommodative and externally focused thinking strategy. The theoretical relevance of these findings for recent
affect-cognition models is discussed, and the practical implications of recognizing the adaptive benefits of negative
affect for social thinking and performance in a number of applied fields are considered.
mood, benefits of negative affect, social cognition, memory, judgments, interpersonal behavior
informational effects (such as affect congruence), when
an affective state influences the valence of responses,
and (b) processing effects, when affect influences the way
information is processed.
According to the affect-priming account (Bower, 1981),
affect is integrally linked to an associative network of
memory representations, and affective states can selec-
tively prime associated constructs that are more likely to
be used in subsequent constructive cognitive tasks. Early
studies confirmed clear mood-congruent effects on mem-
ory, social judgments, and behavior. A different affect-as-
information model suggests that instead of computing a
judgment on the basis of recalled features of a target,
individuals may often ask themselves, “How do I feel
about it?”, and in doing so, they may often misattribute
their current feelings as indicative of their reaction to the
target (Schwarz, 1990, p. 529).
Both accounts can explain affect congruence, albeit in
different circumstances (see Forgas, 2002). Integrative
theories, such as the affect infusion model (Forgas, 1995,
2002), further specify that affect congruence should
depend on the processing styles recruited by different
situations: Affect-as-information is the mechanism of
affect infusion only when heuristic processing is adopted,
and affect priming operates only when substantive, con-
structive information processing is used.
Affect may also influence processing strategies. Early evi-
dence suggested that positive mood leads to less effortful
processing (Clark & Isen, 1982). More recent theories
show, however, that rather than just influencing process-
ing effort, mood has an adaptive function recruiting
qualitatively different processing styles. According to
Bless and Fiedler’s (2006; Fiedler, 2001) assimilative/
accommodative theory, moods signal whether a situation
poses assimilative opportunities or accommodative chal-
lenges to the self. Moods thus subconsciously regulate the
relative influence of top-down processes (in positive
mood) and bottom-up processes (in negative mood).
Positive mood signals that the environment is familiar or
benign, and so top-down, assimilative processing is
appropriate using preexisting knowledge to interpret the
In contrast, negative mood signals a new or challeng-
ing situation calling for externally focused, bottom-up
and accommodative processing in which people follow
social norms and attend to concrete stimuli to interpret
the situation (Bless & Fiedler, 2006; Fiedler, 2001; Forgas,
2002, 2010). Thus, assimilation promotes “imposing
internal structures on the external world,” and accommo-
dation involves “modifying internal structures in accor-
dance with external constraints” (Bless & Fiedler, 2006, p.
66). Numerous studies show that negative mood reduces
reliance on preexisting knowledge, such as scripts, traits,
stereotypes, and constructive impressions (Bless,
Schwarz, Clore, Golisano, & Rabe, 1996; Bodenhausen,
Mussweiler, Gabriel, & Moreno, 2011; Fiedler, Asbeck, &
Nickel, 1991; Forgas, 2011b; Forgas & Koch, 2013).
The Benefits of Negative Affect
Evidence for the benefits of negative affect, including a
series of experiments from our laboratory, is summarized
in four sections: (a) memory benefits, (b) judgmental ben-
efits, (c) motivational benefits, and (d) interpersonal ben-
efits. In these experiments, participants are first induced
into a positive or negative mood state (e.g., using films,
music), and the effects of mood on subsequent cognitive
and behavioral tasks are systematically assessed.
Memory is probably the most fundamental cognitive fac-
ulty (Forgas & Eich, in press; Loftus, 1979). Negative
mood, by recruiting more accommodative and externally
focused processing, should improve attention and encod-
ing. We found, for example, that shoppers in a small sub-
urban shop remembered significantly more information
about the interior of the shop when they experienced
negative mood (on rainy, cold days) rather than positive
mood (on sunny, warm days), even though the time they
spent in the shop was controlled for (Forgas, Goldenberg,
& Unkelbach, 2009).
Memory accuracy can sometimes be compromised by
the incorporation of later, misleading information into
the original memory trace (Loftus, 1979). Several experi-
ments found that negative mood participants were less
likely to incorporate false, misleading details into their
memories than were happy participants (Forgas, Vargas,
& Laham, 2005). In one experiment, participants wit-
nessed a realistic staged altercation between a lecturer
and a female intruder (Forgas et al., 2005, Experiment 2).
One week later, while in a happy or sad mood, they
received questions containing misleading information
about the incident. Negative mood reduced the construc-
tive tendency to incorporate misleading information and
produced more accurate eyewitness memories, consis-
tent with a more accommodative processing style (see
Related effects were also demonstrated by Bauml and
Kuhbandner (2007), who found that negative affect
Don’t Worry, Be Sad! 227
reduced memory interference by promoting item-specific
processing. Storbeck and Clore (2011) also reported that
sad mood reduced false memories by reducing the acti-
vation of nonpresented lures, consistent with other evi-
dence that negative affect restricts the activation of mental
representations (Clore & Huntsinger, 2009).
Improved judgmental accuracy
Social judgments are subject to a variety of constructive
biases as judges create a meaningful “Gestalt” from the
information they receive (Asch, 1946). For example, pri-
macy effects occur because people place disproportion-
ate emphasis on early information and ignore later details
(Asch, 1946). In one experiment, happy or sad judges
were asked to form impressions about a person, Jim,
after reading two paragraphs describing him as an extro-
vert or an introvert (Luchins, 1958). The order of the
paragraphs was counterbalanced. We found clear pri-
macy effects, but remarkably, negative mood completely
eliminated this pervasive judgmental bias (Forgas, 2011b;
see Figure 2).
Impression formation can also be biased by halo
effects. For example, a good-looking person might be
judged as having more desirable qualities, or a young
unorthodox-looking woman is less likely to be seen as
a competent philosopher than a middle-aged man. We
used this manipulation in a recent experiment (Forgas,
2011c). After an autobiographical mood induction (remi-
niscing about happy or sad past events), judges in a posi-
tive or negative mood read a one-page philosophical
essay. I also attached a photo of the writer showing either
a casually dressed woman or a tweedy, bespectacled
man. Happy judges were significantly more influenced
by the appearance of the target, but negative mood elimi-
nated this halo effect (Forgas, 2011c).
More attentive processing in negative mood should
also reduce a person’s likelihood to succumb to inferen-
tial biases, such as the fundamental attribution error—
the tendency to infer intentionality and ignore situational
factors (Forgas, 1998). In several experiments, happy or
sad participants were asked to read and make inferences
about the writer of an essay advocating popular or
unpopular positions that were either assigned or freely
chosen by the writer (Forgas, 1998). Participants in a neg-
ative mood (after watching films) were significantly less
likely to infer incorrect, internal causation on the basis of
coerced essays, and they also had better memory for
essay details, consistent with their more accommodative
processing style. Conceptually similar effects were also
reported by Fiedler, Asbeck, and Nickel (1991), who
found that negative mood reduced, and positive mood
increased, constructive impression formation biases, such
as the incorporation of irrelevant information introduced
by questioning into subsequent impressions.
Several experiments also have shown that negative
moods have an overall beneficial influence on reducing
gullibility and increasing skepticism when it comes to
judging the likely truth of a number of urban myths and
Fig. 1. Mood effects on the tendency to incorporate misleading infor-
mation into eyewitness memory: negative mood reduced, and positive
mood increased, the tendency to incorporate false, misleading memo-
ries into eyewitness recollections (false alarms; after Forgas, Vargas, &
Happy Control Sad
Fig. 2. The effects of mood and primacy on the evaluation of a tar-
get person: positive mood increased, and negative mood reduced, the
constructive tendency to rely on early information (primacy effect) in
impressions (evaluative judgments shown on vertical axis; after Forgas,
rumors (Forgas & East, 2008a). Subjective ease of pro-
cessing, or fluency, is one of the most influential implicit
cues people use when judging truth. We found that posi-
tive mood increased, and negative mood decreased, reli-
ance on such internal fluency cues in truth judgments
(Koch & Forgas, in press).
As negative affect improves attention to stimulus
details, it may also improve a person’s ability to detect
deception. When happy or sad participants watched a
videotape of an interrogation of a person accused of
theft, those in a negative mood were more likely to make
guilty judgments, and they were also significantly better
at correctly detecting deceptive targets (Forgas & East,
2008b; see Figure 3). Sad participants were also signifi-
cantly less likely to accept facial expressions as genuine
than were people in the neutral or happy condition, con-
sistent with the more attentive and accommodative pro-
cessing style associated with negative moods.
Negative mood can also inhibit the implicit use of stereo-
types. In one study, participants in positive or negative
mood were asked to shoot at targets only when they car-
ried a gun. Targets also did or did not appear Muslim
(wearing or not wearing a turban; see Figure 4). There
was a significantly greater tendency overall to shoot at
Muslims; however, negative affect actually reduced, and
positive affect increased, this discriminative tendency,
consistent with negative mood recruiting a more accom-
modative processing style and closer attention to actual
stimulus features rather relying on internal stereotypes
(Bless & Fiedler, 2006). Other studies also have shown
that whereas positive affect increases stereotyping in
judgments, “negative affective states (specifically, sadness)
are associated with reductions or elimination of stereo-
typic biases” (Bodenhausen et al., 2011, p. 337).
According to the hedonistic discounting theory, positive
affect should diminish, and negative mood should
increase, the expected hedonistic value of future achieve-
ment (Goldenberg & Forgas, 2012). When happy and sad
participants were asked to persevere at a demanding
happy neutral sad
Average guilt judgments
Fig. 3. The effects of mood and the target’s veracity (truthful, decep-
tive) on judgments of guilt of targets accused of committing a theft
(average percentage of targets judged guilty in each condition; negative
affect significantly improved the ability to detect deception; after Forgas
& East, 2008b).
Fig. 4. The turban effect: Stimulus figures used to assess the effects of mood and wearing or not wear-
ing a turban on subliminal aggressive responses. Respondents in a positive mood were more likely, and
those in a negative mood were less likely, to rely on Muslim stereotypes and to shoot at turbaned targets
(after Unkelbach, Forgas, & Denson, 2008).
Don’t Worry, Be Sad! 229
cognitive task as long as they liked, those in negative
mood persevered more—they spent more time on the
task, attempted more questions, and had more correct
answers. A mediational analysis supported the hedonistic
discounting theory, as greater perseverance in negative
mood was indeed linked to increased task-value beliefs.
Negative affect may also reduce, and positive affect
increase, the tendency to create artificial self-handicaps
when success is uncertain on a task. Happy or sad par-
ticipants who doubted their ability to do well on a later
task were given a choice to (a) drink a performance-
enhancing, or inhibiting, herbal tea, and (b) engage or
not in performance-enhancing practice. Happy mood
increased, and negative mood decreased, the incidence
of self-handicapping on both measures, as predicted by
the hedonistic discounting theory. Thus, in some circum-
stances, negative affect can increase perseverance and
can reduce dysfunctional self-handicapping behaviors
(Alter & Forgas, 2007; Goldenberg & Forgas, 2012).
Negative affect might also produce a variety of interper-
sonal benefits, as it primes access to more cautious and
considered interpretations and results in more polite and
attentive interpersonal strategies (Forgas, 1995, 2002). For
example, requests must be formulated with just the right
degree of politeness to be effective. It turns out that neg-
ative mood primes more cautious and careful expecta-
tions and leads to more polite and elaborate requests,
whereas positive mood produces less polite and more
assertive approaches (Forgas, 1999). These mood effects
also occur in real-life settings using an unobtrusive
method. When happy or sad participants (after watching
films) were unexpectedly asked to get a file from a neigh-
boring office, negative mood resulted in more polite,
elaborate, and hedging requests (see Figure 5). Other
work suggests that speakers in a negative mood also fol-
low more closely Grice’s (1975) conversational postulates
and provide higher quality, more concrete, and more
detailed descriptions of observed events (Koch, Forgas, &
Goldenberg, 2012; Koch, Forgas, & Matovic, 2012).
Of course, more cautious and polite strategies are not
always advantageous. In other situations, positive affect
may result in more confident negotiating strategies
(Forgas, 2002) and more effective self-disclosure (Forgas,
2011a). There is also growing evidence that moods often
have an automatic influence on interpersonal strategies,
with positive mood promoting, and negative affect
limiting, spontaneous internal processes, such as non-
conscious mimicry (Van Baaren, Fockenberg, Holland,
Janssen, & van Knippenberg, 2006) and the automatic
corepresentation of other individuals’ actions (Kuhbandner,
Pekrun, & Maier, 2010).
Selfishness and fairness are basic dimensions of relating
to others. The assimilative/accommodative model implies
that positive mood may increase self-focus and selfish-
ness, and negative mood can enhance focus on external
fairness norms. When people have to divide a scarce
resource between themselves and others, as is the case in
the dictator game, we found that happy allocators were
more selfish, and sad allocators were more fair, and these
mood effects became stronger as allocation trials pro-
gressed (Tan & Forgas, 2010; see Figure 6). In the ultima-
tum game, proposers face a responder who has a veto
power to accept or reject the offer. If rejected, neither
side gets anything. In this more complex decisional envi-
ronment, sad participants were again less selfish and
gave more resources to others than did happy individu-
als. They also took longer to make fair decisions, consis-
tent with the predicted differences in processing style.
Surprisingly, negative mood also increased concern with
fairness by responders, who were more likely to reject
unfair offers than were happy responders (Forgas & Tan,
in press). These results again demonstrate that negative
affect may increase concern for others and increase
More effective persuasion
Closer attention to external information may also improve
interpersonal effectiveness, such as the quality of persua-
sive messages (Forgas, 2007). When happy or sad partici-
pants were asked to write persuasive arguments for or
against controversial issues (e.g., an increase in student
fees), those in a negative mood produced higher quality
Fig. 5. Negative mood increased politeness in naturally produced
requests: positive mood reduced, and negative mood increased, the
degree of politeness, elaboration, and hedging in strategic interpersonal
requests (after Forgas, 1999).
and more persuasive arguments than did happy partici-
pants. Their arguments featured more concrete and tan-
gible information, consistent with a more accommodative
processing style (see Figure 7). I subsequently found that
arguments produced by sad persuaders actually worked
better in producing real attitude change in naïve partici-
pants. These experiments confirm that negative affect can
actually improve the quality and effectiveness of interper-
sonal strategies in some situations.
Summary and Conclusions
These studies offer convergent evidence for the often
adaptive, beneficial effects of negative affect for cognition,
judgments, motivation, and social behavior. The results
are consistent with evolutionary theories that suggest that
all of our affective states—including the unpleasant
ones—function as “mind modules” that produce adaptive
benefits in some circumstances (Forgas, Haselton, & von
Hippel, 2007; Frijda, 1988; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992).
These findings stand in stark contrast with the unilateral
emphasis on the benefits of positive affect in the recent
literature as well as in popular culture. It is now increas-
ingly recognized that positive affect, despite some advan-
tages, is not universally desirable (Frederickson, 2001;
Gruber, 2011). Rather, people in a negative mood may be
less prone to judgmental errors (Forgas, 1998), more resis-
tant to eye-witness distortions (Forgas et al., 2005), more
motivated (Goldenberg & Forgas, 2012), more sensitive to
social norms (Forgas, 1999), and better at producing high-
quality and effective persuasive messages (Forgas, 2007).
Of course, negative affect is not always desirable. The
beneficial effects of dysphoria are most obvious when
negative affect produces greater attention to situational
demands or improves motivation. Intense, enduring, or
debilitating dysphoria offers no such benefits. I demon-
strated the cognitive, motivational, and interpersonal
benefits of mild, temporary mood states here, of the kind
that people all regularly experience in everyday life.
Specific, intense emotions may have very different conse-
quences. The evidence shows that in many situations,
negative affect may increase, and positive affect may
decrease, people’s ability to monitor and adapt to situa-
tional requirements. Applied and clinical professionals
might well benefit from an explicit recognition of the
adaptive functions of negative affect. More generally,
these results suggest that the unrelenting pursuit of hap-
piness may often be self-defeating (Gruber, 2011;
Whippman, 2012), and a more balanced assessment of
the costs and benefits of positive and negative affect is
long overdue in professional practice and in popular cul-
ture as well.
Bless, H., & Fiedler, K. (2006). (See References). A compre-
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No. of Points Kept to Self
Number of Trials
Fig. 6. The effects of mood on selfishness versus fairness in the dicta-
tor game: negative mood increased fairness and reduced selfishness, as
negative mood participants kept fewer rewards to themselves and gave
more to their partners; this effect became more pronounced as trials
progressed (after Tan & Forgas, 2010).
Mean Argument Quality
Fig. 7. Mood effects on the quality and concreteness of the persuasive
messages produced: negative affect increased the degree of concrete-
ness of the arguments produced, and arguments produced in nega-
tive mood were also more effective in producing attitude change (after
Forgas, 2007, Experiment 2). Error bars indicate the standard error of
Don’t Worry, Be Sad! 231
Forgas, J. P., & Eich, E. E. (in press). (See References). A com-
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Gruber, J. (2011). (See References). An up-to-date summary of
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For further information on this research program, see the fol-
lowing two Web sites: (a) http://forgas.socialpsychology.org
and (b) http://www2.psy.unsw.edu.au/Users/JForgas.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no conflicts of interest with respect to the
authorship or the publication of this article.
Support from the Australian Research Council is gratefully
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