“I am going to feel depressed today.”
Ignoring the fact that I couldn’t have actually been “depressed,” I was in a rather gloomy mood. I was self-conscious of my appearance, I interacted less with people in class, and even when I was dancing and supposed to be enjoying myself, I didn’t feel my best. Despite all these symptoms, I had no clue why I was feeling down.
It turns out that social psychologist Tanya Chartrand has already been researching these “mystery moods” – moods that show up for no particular reason or without us being aware of them. In a chapter in the Psychology of Goals, Leander, Moore and Chartrand (2009) talk about three sources of mystery moods.
First, mystery moods can appear because of nonconscious goals. In one of her studies, Chartrand (2007) presented people with scrambled sentences and asked them to unscramble the sentences. For some people, the sentences contained words related to achievement, such as “success” and “attain.” This got people to adopt a goal related to achievement, although they weren’t aware of it. After unscrambling the sentences, participants completed either an easy or difficult anagram task. Their moods were then evaluated. Chartrand found that when people had a nonconscious goal and did a difficult anagram puzzle, they were in a significantly worse mood than those who did the easy puzzle. When people did not have a nonconscious goal, however, the difficulty of the puzzle had no effect on their mood. Hence, it seems that moods can be affected by goals that are activated outside of our awareness.
Another source of mystery moods comes from our general, automatic assessment of the environment. Imagine if we had to consciously think about and categorize every little thing in the environment. Because that isn’t a feasible task for any human being, we automatically evaluate and categorize the wealth of information around us as either “positive” or “negative.” The combination of all of these evaluations helps us paint a picture of the general positivity or negativity of the environment and in turn affects our mood. In 2006, Chartrand and her colleagues flashed positive, negative or neutral value words very quickly on a screen in front of participants (think subliminal priming and subliminal messages). Although people were unaware that they were shown these words, their moods painted a clear story – the people shown the positive words were in a more pleasant mood after the experiment than those shown the negative words. Therefore, our general assessment of the environment can unconsciously influence our moods.
Mystery moods can also be acquired through social interactions. One way is by “catching” a mood. Different from catching a cold, catching a mood can occur when we unconsciously mimic another person’s facial expressions or behavior. Mystery moods can also appear when we encounter people who remind us of our past relationships. This is known as affective transference. Studies have shown that people who read a list of traits about a fictitious person who is highly similar to a significant other whom they admire tend to look happier (Andersen, Reznik, & Manzella, 1996). Again, these moods are triggered unconsciously and their reasons are masked from our awareness.
After considering these sources, I reflected back on my situation and couldn’t find a clear answer. The morning was just like any other, so it was unlikely that automatic evaluations caused my mood. Perhaps something in my dreams triggered a nonconscious goal or reminded me of a bad relationship.
Then again, maybe it was just because it was a Monday.
Leander, N. P., Moore, S. G., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). Mystery moods. In G. B. Moskowitz & H. Grant (Eds.), The psychology of goals (pp. 480-504). New York, NY: Guilford Press.