News and Tribune


April 12, 2012

STAWAR: It’s the little things that count

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — We all know that things like going through a major disaster or winning the lottery can influence one’s health and happiness, but I’ve always been surprised how much little things can affect people.

My wife Diane tends to keep track of positive things — major and minor — while I focus on negative events. But I have to admit that even a minor positive occurrence, like getting 10 cents off a gallon of gas at Kroger, can make a difference in my attitude.

If you’ve recently noticed people walking around Southern Indiana who seem inexplicably happy or gloomy, psychologists may have an explanation for you. This may be behavior precipitated by the University of Kentucky’s recent win and Louisville’s loss in the NCAA basketball tournament.

According to Arizona State University social psychologist Robert Cialdini, “winning and losing teams influence the morale of a region, a city or a college campus.” He believes that some die-hard losing fans may even show signs of clinical depression. Likewise, winning fans may demonstrate irrational elation. Cialdini says that for many people, sports is not just a “light diversion.”

Social psychologist Edward Hirt from Indiana University found that rabid fans were much more optimistic about their sex appeal and their ability to perform well at darts and word games after their team won a victory. Hirt also found that when the team lost, that optimism vanished.

Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, has found that people often do not hold stable or consistent attitudes. When asked for their opinions, people frequently make them up spontaneously and are unduly influenced by recent experiences, including very subtle life events. These are often quite minor factors, that nevertheless significantly affect our mood and ultimately our attitudes.

Bits of good or bad luck, whether your favorite team wins or loses and the weather are among those small things that form our background mood.

Canadian humorist Stuart McLean tells a story that begins with a simple broken shoelace and gradually escalates into a full-fledged disaster. Background mood is sort of like the ambient temperature in a room. It generally is there without us being aware of it and it’s composed of what psychologist call “incidental feelings.”

Back in 1987, Schwarz conducted an experiment in which he placed a dime next to a copy machine in a college library. Later, he conducted in-depth interviews with everyone who had used the copy machine that day. He discovered that subjects who had found the dime claimed that they were significantly more satisfied with their lives and more optimistic about the future than those who didn’t notice the money.

While it’s hard to believe that a mere dime can matter that much, Schwarz said, “It’s not the value of what you find. It’s that something positive happened to you, and surprised you.”

Along with his colleague, Hyunjin Song, Schwarz conducted a second study of how mild frustration can effect people’s judgment. They examined how an easy-to-read typeface affected people, as opposed to a difficult-to-read typeface. All of the experimental subjects were asked to read a Japanese recipe and then were asked to estimate how long it would take to prepare the dish.

For half of the participants, the recipe was printed in an easy-to-read font (Arial), while the other half read the recipe printed in a hard-to-read font (Mistral). Participants who read the recipe in the more frustrating font estimated that it would take more than 13 minutes longer to make the recipe than the participants who read the easy-to-read version.

 Schwarz and other researchers have found that there is a host of little things that affect our decisions and actions in major ways. However, these incidental feelings are only effective if their source remains unconscious. In regard to the copy machine study, Schwarz says, “the dime only works if you’re not aware you’re happy because you found it …”

Schwarz says that even he is still fooled by incidental feelings. He has described how he knows how bad weather can negatively color your whole outlook. He also knows that if you become aware of the weather’s influence, you can better deal with it.

Eduardo B. Andrade and Teck-Hua Ho from the Business School at the University of California advise that if you want a raise at work, your best chance is to ask when your boss is in a good mood and his or her incidental feelings are to your advantage. They warn, however, that this can easily backfire if your boss suspects you are trying to exploit his or her good mood. The boss may try to compensate for his good mood by being even more negative than he or she usually is, not to mention the anger they may possibly experience if the boss feels manipulated.

A 2008 study by Deborah Small and Jennifer Lerner from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania investigated the effects of “incidental feelings” on workers’ decisions regarding welfare recipients. They found that workers with incidental anger decreased the amount of welfare assistance they recommended. Workers with incidental sadness, on the other hand, actually increased the amount of assistance that they recommended.

In 1981, Richard Lazarus from the University of California and his colleagues constructed The Hassles Scale to measure people’s experiences with the most common unpleasant life events. Later, they developed the Uplifts Scale, which assess events that evoke positive emotions such as satisfaction or joy.

This research eventually led to interest in microstressors and microlifts, which are those very minor hassles and uplifting events that shape incidental feelings. Subsequent research showed that these minor hassles can effect things like physical health, even more than major life traumas.

All this suggests that we might want to pay a lot more attention to these incidental feelings and their causes. As the old saying goes, “You can sit on a mountain, but not on a tack.”

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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