Sadness Affects Attention

How emotional state affects attention and cognition

It has been observed a long time ago that emotional state does affect attention and cognition. There is a direct relationship between the intensity of an emotion and attention. The study mentioned here has demonstrated how sadness affects attention at different levels and sheds some light on how emotions influence neuronal activity in the brain.

Measuring Sadness

The goal of the recent study was to evaluate the influence of the degree of sadness on the scope of attention. The study involved a group of 42 students from Capital Normal University of Beijing, China – 33 females and 9 males, age ranging from 18 to 29 y/o. To evoke a specific emotional state in participants, they were shown images with neutral and/or sad content. The latter could be divided into low-sadness and high-sadness images. Neutral ones depicted items that are used routinely every day (furniture, cups, plates, clocks, etc.); low-sadness ones depicted people crying over some sad events they had experienced a while before; high-sadness ones depicted people weeping, as well as what was causing they to weep – loss of their friends and/or loved ones in accidents and disasters.

Measuring Attention

To evaluate the scope of attention in participants, the Navon global-local letter test was applied: the participants were to look at large capital letters (H, L, F, T) composed of smaller capital letters (the smaller letters were different from the larger "parent" ones). The large H> and L consisting of small Fs and/or Ts were to be referred to as global targets, and the large F and T composed of small Hs and/or Ls – as local ones. When a participant was shown a H, he/she was to make a left-button click; when shown a L, he/she was to make a right-button click. Participants naming large letters were deemed to have a global attention scope; those referring to small letters were defined to have a local attention scope.


The study revealed a number of tendencies: the reaction to the neutral images was similar in both groups. Low-sadness participants showed a greater attention scope, as they would point to large letters first. The high-sadness group demonstrated a narrower attention scope.

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