Sad students outsmart happy kids

Sad students outperform happy students, say British researchers. From The Telegraph:

Academics found that children who had just watched sad film scenes performed better in mental tests than those who had enjoyed a feelgood clip.

The research, carried out at the University of Plymouth, found children who were in a negative or neutral mood were more likely to be questioning and critical in their thinking, assisting them in tasks which required close attention.

Those who were feeling happy and carefree were more likely to gloss over details and therefore more prone to error.

A good mood boosts creativity and imagination, said Dr. Simone Schnall, the lead researcher. A negative or neutral mood improves concentration.

“Research has shown that when it comes to the broader picture, or creative tasks, the confidence that comes with a good mood helps performance,” she said. “Our study shows that a negative mood can be useful. It tells us to pay attention. It warns us there is a risk of something going wrong and that caution can help children to perform better.”

However, Dr Schnall suggested that there was no need actively to enforce misery as part of the school curriculum.

Oh. Good. Let it happen naturally.

But the research may undermine the British government’s “happiness agenda,” The Telegraph suggests. Schools are being urged to teach “lessons in emotional literacy” to improve children’s confidence — and decrease their thinking skills.

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  1. “However, Dr Schnall suggested that there was no need actively to enforce misery as part of the school curriculum.”

    Funny. i thought it was already built in to the curriculum.

  2. Based on what I read in the article, I wonder if there’s no a serious flaw in this research. It’s possible that the article is just misleading, but it appears that we don’t have a real comparison between happy and sad students, because the students in a “neutral” mood were lumped in with the sad kids. Maybe this means that kids who aren’t either especially happy OR sad perform best, but since they were lumped in with the sad kids, we can’t know. If the research doesn’t break out these numbers to compare happy vs. neutral vs. sad, it seems like a serious design flaw to arbitrarily lump neutral and sad together.

    I tend to agree with the contention that happy children aren’t going to magically learn better (and that excited children are going to be too distracted to learn), but that apparent design flaw makes it hard to draw ANY conclusion from this study. I hope that the actual research deals with this and I’m just being misled by the newspaper story.

  3. This calls to mind a line from a book about travel in Africa (“Journey to the Interior” (?)), where the narrator encountered a man “with such a mournful expression I knew he must have been very well educated”.

  4. Note that this research, like some prior studies, focuses on an experimental situation where there is little or no reason for the effort and motivation is extrinsic. Unfortunately, this is often true in classroom “learning” situations. That this is not necessarily the case where the purpose of the effort is clear and motivation is intrinsic can be determined from considering the emotions of children engaged in learning for personal reasons — sports statistics, details of scenarios in video games, etc. — where they do quite well absorbing and using details without being sad. Overall, happy, optimistic, hopeful individuals are more creative, collaborative, pro-social, goal-oriented, and resilient. And, having helped train teachers from the UK in resilience and positive psychology, I know that at least some of what they are doing is based on very solid empirical science.