Maybe the old adage “don‘t worry, be happy“ has some truth in it after all.
According to a study conducted by researchers at UC Davis and the University of Washington, although children between the ages of five and seven all understand the connection that negative emotions can cause poorer school performance, only the 7-year-olds realized the link between positive emotions and better school performance.
The study was published in the January/February issue of Child Development, the Society for Research in Child Development‘s journal.
Participants consisted of 5- to 7-year-olds and adults. The study had each participant listen to a story, which featured a different character and either a positive or negative event. The story ended with the character having to take a test later at school. The participants were then asked if the character would do worse, the same or better on the test than they usually did on that kind of test. To make it engaging for the children, the story had different types of tests, ranging from spelling and memory to science.
While all the participants understood the negative emotion link, not every 7-year-old and adult fully believed the positive emotion connection.
“Even the adults were not all consistently sure that feeling positive emotions would improve your performance,“ said Kristin Lagattuta, a UC Davis associate psychology professor and one of the authors for the study.
“Young kids understood … by age five that if you were feeling sad or angry, it would be very hard to do well on something like a cognitive test, and the adults fully agree on this,“ she said. “So if you [compare the results], even the adults think that negative emotions are far more debilitative on cognitive test performance than they think positive emotions are for enhancing.“
There are a few explanations for why people tend to discount the power of positive thinking. First of all, many people assume that a person‘s default mood is happy. Because of this, many might think that the performance would stay the same by thinking positively unless the person was extremely happy. However, some adults claim that this super happiness would be more distracting than helpful because they would think about what made them happy in the first place.
In addition to a person‘s default mood, many people believe that a positive physiological state, such as eating breakfast or getting a good night‘s sleep, would be more beneficial to the test taker than positive emotions, Lagattuta said.
The research shows clearly that children understand negative links at a much earlier age. This understanding of positive emotions comes later in development and even then, as the adults showed, does not necessarily mean it is internalized.
“It seems to be the case that negative emotions and negative events are very salient and attention-getting. In many ways, it makes sense that many children would understand them earlier than positive events,“ Lagattuta said.
The importance of the study comes from its practical applications. Teachers today tell their students the importance of the positive physiological states such as eating correctly and sleeping before a test. According to Lagattuta, because students have to take weeklong standardized tests, teachers should talk to their students about positive emotions.
“The more aware children are about how and why their feelings affect their school performance, the better prepared they will be to look out for situations where their emotions or physiological states could impact their performance,“ said Jennifer Amsterlaw, a research scientist at the University of Washington and principal author of the study. “[The students can] then take steps to improve the chances of a positive outcome.“
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.