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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Post summer school workgroup seedcorn grant report

03.04.2016, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

Arousal and Cognitive Processing
by Filipa Almeida, Hans Alves, Olga Bialobrzeska, Sandra Godinho, & Marília Prada

Arousal and Cognitive Processing

Filipa Almeida1, Hans Alves2, Olga Bialobrzeska3, Sandra Godinho4, & Marília Prada4

1FP-University of Lisbon
2Social Cognition Center Cologne
3SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw
4Lisbon University ISCTE-IUL

Following the EASP summer school in Lisbon in the summer of 2014, our group was awarded a seedcorn grant that enabled us carry out several empirical investigations in Poland as well as in Lisbon. At the summer school, we participated in the workshop on “Situated Social Cognition” led by Margarida Garrido and Gün Semin. During the workshop, we formed a “thematic subgroup” and developed a theory that made specific predictions regarding an influence of physiological arousal on cognitive processing. Thanks to the EASP seedcorn grant, we were able to pursue the cross-European research collaboration that we started at the summer school and we have by now established a frequent and fruitful scientific exchange between our institutions in Portugal, Poland and Germany. In this report, we give an overview about our theoretical framework as well as empirical findings that we have gathered with the help of the EASP grant.
In line with our thematic workshop at the summer school, our theoretical framework about the influence of physiological arousal on cognitive processing builds on the premise that cognition is situated. That is, cognitive processes take place in a situation that imposes different demands on the individual. As such, the individual has to “read” the current situation to adjust cognitive processing and to increase functionality. Regarding the question of how people do “read” situations, it has been suggested that people often rely on their internal affective reaction (e.g., Bless & Fielder, 2006; Frijda, 1988; Schwarz, 1990). Accordingly, affective states provide useful summaries of the nature of given situations and thereby give rise to different information processing strategies (e.g., Schwarz, 1990; Schwarz & Clore, 1996). Specifically, while positive affect elicits global, top-down processing, negative affect leads to more local, bottom-up processing (e.g., Clore, Schwarz, & Conway, 1994; Mackie & Worth, 1989).

This tuning of cognitive processing to the environment is sought to be adaptive. For example, anxiety triggers bottom-up processing which constitutes a survival advantage in a threatening situation (Baumeister, 1991; Taylor, 1991). Affective cues have been argued to be particularly useful as they are “summarized” cues that signal the important distinction between a good and a bad environment, they can entail more knowledge than is consciously available to the individual, they require little analytic processing, and they are closely tied to physiological reactions and reflexes (Bless & Fielder, 2006).

However, as suggested by various emotion theories, affective reactions can be conceptualized as a combination of a physiological state of arousal and an evaluative (cognitive) component (e.g., Barrett, 2006; Gross, 1998; James-Lange-Theory, 1984,). We argue that research on the interplay between affect and cognition has largely neglected this differentiation. Given that arousal typically precedes the evaluative component of an emotional experience, we suggest arousal might constitute a more immediate and more valid cue for the demands of a given situation than affective valence. According to our idea, situations differ in their “urge”, i.e. the degree to which they call for immediate action. In other words, arousal is an indicator of the present situation’s importance. We propose that an adaptive organism should be sensitive to physiological arousal and alter its cognitive processing style accordingly: High arousal signals an urgent and important situation and should trigger concrete, bottom-up processing while low arousal signals a non-urgent, unimportant situation which allows for abstract, top-down processing.

Physiological arousal is defined as a condition of sensory alertness, mobility and readiness to respond (Boehringer, Schwabe, & Schachinger, 2010; Kandel, Schwartz, & Jessell, 2000). It involves the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which can vary depending on the behavioral response called for, but it characteristically involves an increase in heart rate and blood pressure (Blascovich & Mendes, 2010), which, in turn, intensifies the energy supply to the brain and body and thus enhances the individual’s preparedness to act (e.g., Bradley & Lang, 2000). Clearly, physiological arousal prepares the organism to respond to the immediate situation it is in. We suggest this preparation process might also unfold on a cognitive level. In order to respond to a situation, information processing should be concrete and stimulus-driven. While previous research has already proposed that arousal affects cognitive performance (Easterbrook, 1959; Humphreys & Revelle, 1984; Mather & Sutherland, 2011), such research typically examines whether arousal leads to improved or impaired performance and not whether it alters the style of processing.

The EASP seedcorn grant that we obtained enabled us to test our theory in three experiments. In the first two experiments we tested our prediction that high versus low physiological arousal leads to more abstract cognitive processing. The first experiment was carried out at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland. Sixty-one participants were either instructed to walk or run in the same place for 5 minutes, while their heart rate was measured using pulsemeters. Next, participants were asked to write a few sentences about a life event that was important to them and which included at least one other person. Participants’ writings were analyzed using the Linguistic Category Model (LCM) which provides an estimates for the abstractedness/concreteness of the language used by participants (Semin & Fiedler, 1991). While the arousal manipulation was successful, it did not influence the abstractedness participants’ writings. The second experiment was carried out at the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE) in Portugal. Seventy-seven participants were asked to either perform several physical exercises while their heart rates were measured with pulsometers. Between each yoga pose, participants were presented with two cartoons (a total of 12 cartoons) that each depicted a situation involving a person. Participants were asked to choose one out of four provided descriptions for each cartoon that they thought best described the cartoon. The four cartoon descriptions varied regarding their level of abstractness. Similar to Study 1, the arousal manipulation was again successful but did not influence participants’ preference for abstract/concrete descriptions. A final Study 3 was realized online with 217 Portuguese online participants. In this study we showed participants 5 pictures from the International Affective Pictures System (IAPS; Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 2005). Depending on experimental condition, pictures were either positive or negative and were either highly, moderately, or lowly arousing. Participants were instructed to write a few sentences describing the picture. Afterwards, participants were asked to group 38 items into categories (Liberman, Sagristano, & Trope, 2002). The number of categories that participants formed served as a dependent variable by assuming that abstract processing results in the formation of less categories than concrete processing. However, neither valence nor arousal influenced the number of categories that participants formed.

Taken together, we did not find any evidence for an influence of arousal on cognitive processing styles. Our prediction that high physiological arousal and highly arousing stimuli should lead to more concrete processing and that low physiological arousal and lowly arousing stimuli lead to more abstract processing was not confirmed. We derived this prediction by theoretical reasoning according to which arousal should constitute a valid cue for the organism regarding the demands of the situation independent of valence. While the empirical results suggest no influence of arousal on processing styles, in study 3 we did also find no evidence for the often reported influence of valence on processing styles. Thus, it remains somewhat unclear whether arousal really does not influence cognitive processing styles or whether our dependent variables were not sensitive enough. Hence, future research might test the arousal hypothesis by using more sensitive processing measures.

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