Bad Thinking, Part 2: Mood Matters

Law and Order: SVU. (Start the video at 9:36, but you may have to watch some ads.) Notice the shift in mood.

Scene: detectives asking a restaurant owner (Lyla) to look at the photographs of two criminal suspects, a man and a woman. Seemingly frustrated, she looks at them but doesn’t recognize either.

Lyla: I’m not really good with faces. I’m more of a word person.

Detective #1: Here’s a word. Focus.

[Lyla abruptly hands the photos back to the detective and walks away, obviously offended.]

Detective #2: What my partner means to say is that maybe you’re just underestimating yourself.

Lyla: [still mad] I don’t think so.

[Detective #2 turns on the charm and gets her to smile.]

Detective #2: Take a look at these photos one more time. Please.

Lyla: [sighs, smiling] This guy I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she was here that night.

This scene illustrates beautifully what scientists have discovered through tools like the Remote Association Test. A good mood raises intuitive abilities, but lowers logical attentiveness. A bad mood makes us less prone to errors in logic, but it’s like a wet blanket over intuition and creativity. Feeling nervous and criticized by the first detective shut down the intuition of the restaurant owner. But after her mood brightened, she easily recalled the face of the woman in the photo, because this is a function of intuitive System 1.


So what does this mean for us, as thinkers? Being aware of your mood can help you maximize your cognitive abilities. First, when you’re engaging in a creative or intuitive task, you’ll perform better if you’re in good spirits. If, prior to such a task, you find yourself in a foul mood, it would be wise to either, (a) put off the task (if possible) until your mood lightens, or (b) take some steps to improve your mood. Here’s one of my favorite TED talks on this subject that includes some very practical suggestions at the 10:56 mark.


Second, when you’re engaging in a System 2 task—analysis, problem solving, etc.—you’re likely to perform better if you don’t stroll into it casually. If you’re a more happy-go-lucky or optimistic person, it might be wise to stop and shift gears. Try some cognitive warm ups to crank up your System 2 and heighten your concentration. Work two or three simple multiplication problems, count backward from 100, or pick a word and find as many rhyming words as you can. (More “warm ups” here and here.)

Faith and Cognitive Modes

What about religion? Does mood matter when contemplating religious and metaphysical ideas? Yes. It matters because it affects which System is predominant. So which mode— intuitive System 1 or analytical System 2—is most appropriate for religious thinking? I’ve often wrestled with this question myself and I think it depends on your goals and on your context. If you’re already committed to a faith tradition like Christianity, System 2 is helpful when studying theology or when discussing religion with someone outside the faith, to give two examples. But worship, by contrast, requires shifting away from skepticism and toward openness. I find that praying and listening to a sermon are activities best done with a sense of receptivity, seasoned with a pinch of healthy skepticism, putting off the bulk of analysis for later.

skeptic faith thinkingFor those who identify as atheist or agnostic, it may not be as appropriate to suspend your skeptical guard, unless you find yourself desiring to believe. You should always leave open a small window of possibility, regardless, as I have written about elsewhere. But I have met atheists and agnostics who find belief unattainable given their current set of evidence. When I share about my own experience of God, they sometimes express a desire to have such an experience, in the hope that it would finally allow them to believe. For them, I would suggest partially lowering their System 2 defenses and cultivating an intuitive System 1 mind-set. Relationships, even between oneself and God, are best experienced through this mode, rather than by logical analysis.

Faith and Mood

What this implies for mood management is that religious believers will probably experience the full benefits of worship when their mood is good. Grief and lament remain important aspects of a full-orbed Christian faith, and perhaps research may eventually tell us how those moods affect our cognitive mode. But in general, I’m inclined to believe that a positive outlook enhances prayer and openness to hearing from God. On the other hand, if you only ever approach religion with your analytical System 2 on full alert, you may actually be blocking out the evidence needed to support belief. I recognize that there are some conundrums here, but despite this, there can still be good reasons for belief or for deciding on a course of action.

(On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible.’)

4 thoughts on “Bad Thinking, Part 2: Mood Matters

  1. Chris, I am sometimes concerned that you try too overtly to critically rationalize intuitive belief with your posts. I think you struck a fairly good balance with this one, though. However, I believe it omits a degree of analysis, which may be included in the link you provided, or pending future development. I won’t fault you for not being utterly exhaustive in these posts.

    The System 1 process is fairly universal among humanity – possibly barring trauma or mental disorder. At its core, it is experienced through shared feelings of wonderment or awe. Culturally speaking, these feelings are “attributable” to certain symbols or rituals. It may be any number of things: Dharma, the Tao, Allah, Jesus, or – in the case of atheists – natural phenomena.

    If the symbol is fixed in the supernatural, then they all share the same fundamental weakness for evidence. If the symbol is fixed in nature, then empirical evidence will bear out any requirements for source evidence.

    Observing a natural phenomena and attributing it to the supernatural is a very common trait vis a vis animistic projection or similar. So, while one aspect of this contains empirical evidence (i.e., lightning), the symbol – if grounded in the supernatural (i.e., angry gods) – does not bear out the truth or validity of interpretation to the witnessed event. The feeling of awe or fear in the presence of said natural events may be shared by most, but how they attribute their source of inspiration is frequently a matter of cultural impression.

    I, and I dare say most atheists, reject or lack an appreciation for this type of cultural symbolism. I think the frustration arises when one group rejects the archetype of another, even though they may both feel similarly about an event otherwise. If that archetype is non-empirical… I do not believe it will ever be accepted by truly rational means.

    I appreciate you placing your ideas and thoughts out there for analysis, and understand that (my) constant critiquing can be wearisome. This core issue still has not been adequately addressed to satisfaction, though. Until then, I believe it will be the underlying flaw in your arguments; or at least the angle by which one can explore non-believers’ minds. Thanks for providing a platform for dissent!

    1. Thanks for your constructive and charitable comments! I don’t quite follow the line of argument, but I think I can see some good points being made. This post was one of my more speculative essays, so I’m glad at least that it stimulated conversation. I may be stretching the Kahneman research too far. If it seems like I’ve missed something important here, let me know. Maybe simplify it for my sake.

  2. Simplified: any manner of person might witness something empirical in nature. In terms of attributing cause, one sees randomness in natural order, another might see supernatural influence manifesting as a natural event.

    Example: hurricanes happen. We might both agree to the empirical aspect of said hurricanes by virtue of its agreed-upon characteristics and witnessed existence. The irreligious would see no supernatural cause for said hurricane, and accept the randomness of natural order meeting the conditions necessary to initiate a hurricane. The religious mind would reasonably see the same empirical evidence, and understand the same natural order to be in effect. To this point, this is all empirically observable.

    The difference resides, in terms of symbolism, on the cause. Irreligious would see a completely – if random – natural event, caused only by the requisite conditions to spawn a hurricane. Religious claims, only if the cause is thought to be sourced or influenced by the supernatural, would be grounding their belief in something non-empirical (i.e., God sent hurricanes to punish the gays in Florida).

    In other words, there is both an empirical component & a non-empirical component present. However, the empirical component in no ways supports evidence of the non-empirical claim. The two communities might find consensus on the “what” – but will invariably diverge when discussing the “why” where supernatural claims are introduced.

    Not sure if that clarified or confused. Hopefully it makes sense. I prefer to generate more light than heat, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

    1. I think I can agree with what you’ve just written. Two people see the same event and interpret it differently. But surely not all interpretations are equally reasonable or supported by the evidence. So then we ask, “how do we discern which interpretations are best?” This is usually done by way of an “inference to the best explanation” method, maybe using Bayesian reasoning or something like the Surprise Principle. So, we’re not at a complete loss in terms of inferring causes (“whys”) from empirical observation. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial here — I imagine you’ll agree. I guess the next question is, “how does this link up with the post?”

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