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Implicit measures of mood and emotion

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Mood can be measured implicitly& these measures ensure that participants are unaware their mood is being assessed or monitored. Implicit measures afford several benefits: first, they override intentional distortion & second, they ensure that mood can be measured even if participants are oblivious to these affective states (e.g., Jostmann, Koole, van der Wulp, & Fockenberg, 2006) & third, they overcome variations in the labels that individuals assign to emotions (Quirin, Kazen, & Kuhl, 2009).

Relationship between explicit and implicit measures of mood or affect

The responses to explicit measures of mood or affect are likely to be governed by conceptual or verbal representations of events (e.g., Strack & Deutsch, 2004). In contrast, responses to implicit measures of mood or affect are likely to depend on associations individuals form between events and affective responses (Quirin, Kazen, Rohrman, & Kuhl, 2009 & Strack & Deutsch, 2004). In this sense, explicit and implicit measures of mood or affect might reflect distinct mechanisms and systems, potentially corresponding more to the left and right hemispheres respectively (see Gainotti, 2005)

Nevertheless, these implicit responses, which represent more spontaneous affective responses, might shape deliberate, verbal representation as well (Clore, Storebeck, Robinsn, Centerbar, 2005). Thus, implicit and explicit measures should not be entirely unrelated.

Examples of implicit measures of mood

Implicit positive and negative affect test (IPANAT)

Implicit mood has been assessed using the implicit positive and negative affect test (Quirin, Kazen, & Kuhl, 2009). Participants examine non-words (e.g., SARGS) and rate the extent to which seven mood states correspond to each of these items. The seven moods are: pleased, helpless, energetic, nervous, passive, relaxed, and aggressive. High scores on pleased, energetic, and relaxed indicate positive affect. High scores on helpless, nervous, passive, and aggressive are indicative of negative affect.

The IPANAT, like many other measures of mood, distinguishes positive and negative affect. Consistent with this approach, some researchers have shown that positive and negative affect represent distinct neural underpinnings (Cacioppo & Gardner, 1999). Similarly, low positive affect and high negative affect coincide with distinct conditions. Low positive affect, which manifests as disappointment, dissatisfaction, sadness, and sometimes lethargy, is evoked by the withdrawal of rewards, corresponding to frustrated goals or unrealistic demands. In contrast, high negative affect, which manifests as anxiety, agitation, and restlessness, tends to coincide with the prospect of punishment or impending threats (cf., Gray, 1987;; Higgins, 1987;; see also self discrepancy theory).

To validate the IPANAT, Quirin, Kazen, Rohrman, and Kuhl (2009) examined the relationship between implicit affect and cortisol levels--a hormone that is related to the experience of stress, such as threatening evaluations. Previous research has examined the association between explicit affect and cortisol, unearthing some conflicting results. A few studies indicate that positive affect might be inversely related to levels of cortisol in the morning-perhaps because such states represent defenses against stress (e.g., Steptoe, Gibson, Hamer, and Wardle, 2007). Some studies also show how increases in cortisol, in response to stressful events, are related to traits such as propensity to experience anxiety (Hubert & de Jong-Meyer, 1992).

Quirin, Kazen, Rohrman, and Kuhl (2009), however, showed that implicit positive affect, as measured by the IPANAT, was related to cortisol levels, at least when recorded within 75 minutes of waking. Implicit negative affect--as well as the explicit measures--were not related to levels of cortisol during these times. Furthermore, the implicit and explicit measures were not correlated with one another.

In a second study, Quirin, Kazen, Rohrman, and Kuhl (2009) showed that implicit negative affect, as gauged by the IPANAT, was associated with surges of cortisol in response to unpredictable noise--often regarded as a stressor. These changes in cortisol were unrelated to implicit positive affect or the explicit measures.

Word stem completion

DeWall and Baumeister (2007) described another task that is designed to assess mood implicitly. Individuals receive a series of 32 stems, such as "JO_" or "ANG_" and are instructed to add letters to form words. The stems are designed to ensure they can be completed to form positive or negative emotional words, such as joy or anger, or unemotional words, such as job and angle. The number of positive emotional words that are formed is assumed to reflect positive mood, and the number of negative emotional words that are formed is assumed to reflect negative mood.

Word categorization

DeWall and Baumeister (2007) also utilized another task to assess mood implicitly. On each of the 28 trials, individuals received a target word, such as "puppy" and two comparison words, such as "beetle" and "parade". One of the comparison words, in this instance "beetle", was semantically related to the target word. The other comparison word, in this example "parade", was emotionally related to the target word& that is, both words related to happiness, sadness, or fear. Participants were merely asked to specify which of the two comparison words are most similar to the target word. Participants who often classified two happy words as related were deemed as happy, and so forth.

Implicit association task

The implicit association test has also been used to assess anxiety (Egloff, Weck, & Schmukle, 2008). This test assesses the extent to which people associate anxiety with themselves. Arguably, this test may assess trait anxiety only& whether this procedure gauges state anxiety has yet to be established.

In essence, a series of words is presented. The words relate to anxiety (e.g., nervous), calmness (e.g., calm), the self (e.g., I), or other people (e.g., they). Participants need to press one button whenever words that relate to anxiety appear and another button whenever words that relate to calmness appear. In addition, they need to press one button in response to words that relate to the self and another button in response to words that relate to other people.

Some individuals perform this task more effectively when words that relate to anxiety and the self correspond to the same button. This pattern of performance is assumed to imply that individuals perceive themselves as anxious. Other individuals perform this task more effectively when words that relate to calmness and the self correspond to the same button. This pattern of performance is assumed to imply that individuals perceive themselves as calm (Egloff, Weck, & Schmukle, 2008).

Egloff, Weck, and Schmukle (2008) examined whether this implicit measure of anxiety correlates with an explicit measure of anxiety. A positive correlation was observed, but only after people imagined an event that tends to provoke anxiety.

Measures of processing style

Ruys and Stapel (2008) assessed the processing style of individuals. In particular, past research indicates that individuals like to evaluate information more carefully and systematically when they experience negative moods. Hence, to assess mood implicitly, Ruys and Stapel (2008), participants read either solid or tenuous arguments about a proposition. If individuals experience a negative mood, and thus analyze information carefullly, the attitudes of participants should be especially dependent on whether they read solid or tenuous arguments.

Similarly, to assess mood implicitly, Huntsinger, Lun, Sinclair, and Clore (2009) also administered a task that assessed the information processing style of participants. The rationale is that individuals in a positive or neutral mood tend to process information globally, orienting their attention to the overall pattern (Gasper & Clore, 2002). In contrast, when individuals feel sad, they tend to orient their attention towards details rather than patterns.

A task, originally developed by Kimchi and Palmer (1982), was administered to differentiate between this focus on global patterns and local details (see also Gasper & Clore, 2002). For each of the 24 trials, one figure, called the target, was presented. In addition, two other figures, called the alternatives, were presented. The task of participants was to specify which of the alternatives seemed more similar to the target.

For each trial, the global shape was similar between one of the alternatives and the target. Furthermore, the local details were similar between the other alternative and the target. Hence, if participants selected the alternative that was similar in overall shape to the target, their attention must have been directed towards the global pattern, manifesting a positive rather than negative mood.

Several findings substantiate the validity of this task (Huntsinger, Lun, Sinclair, and Clore, 2009). First, the number of times participants chose the alternative that similar in overall shape was correlated with a self report measure, in which they were asked whether they focused on the overall similarity in form between the figures.

Second, when participants expected to interact closely with someone in a negative mood, they also demonstrated a negative mood-orienting their attention to local details. When participants expected to interact closely with someone in a positive mood, they demonstrated a positive mood, focusing their attention on the global patterns of the figures (Huntsinger, Lun, Sinclair, and Clore, 2009).

Association and Reasoning Scale

The Association and Reasoning Scale, which was developed by Mayer and Hanson (1995), can also gauge emotions implicitly. The scale includes questions such as "What is the probability that a 30 year old will be involved in a happy, loving romance?" The mood of individuals tends to bias the answers of individuals. That is, their answers are, usually, congruent with their mood. Optimistic answers, therefore, tend to imply a happy mood.

Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009) conducted a study that vindicates the validity of this measure. After individuals repeated positive affirmations to themselves, they tended to offer optimistic answers--provided their self esteem was elevated, consistent with their hypothesis.

Incentive ratings

A measure, called incentive ratings, developed by Clark (1983), can also be administered to assess mood implicitly. Participants rate the extent to which they feel like to engage in a series of desirable activities, such as attending a party. If individuals feel sad, they prefer to refrain from these activities (see Wood, Saltzberg, & Goldsamt, 1990).

A study, conducted by Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009), corroboratess the validity of this measure. Individuals were more inclined to embrace these activities after they repeated positive affirmations to themselves--but only if their self esteem was elevated, consistent with their hypothesis.

Autobiographical memory

Fluency of autobiographical memory, in which the latency to retrieve memories that correspond to specific emotions is measured, is sometimes used to assess mood implicitly (e.g., Boden & Baumeister, 1997;; Sheppes & Meiran, 2007). The procedure entails three phases. First, participants were asked to recall any past event, pressing a button as soon as this event surfaced in their mind, and then transcribing one word that summarizes this episode. They repeated this exercise several times. Second, participants were instructed to describe each of these events, including the time, location, and implications of these episodes. Finally, and most critically, participants were asked to recall as many happy memories of specific events as possible.

When the time to identify the first happy event is prolonged, participants are deemed to feel unhappy (Boden & Baumeister, 1997). In addition, if individuals cannot identify many happy memories within a set duration, usually between two and three minutes, they are also assumed to be unhappy (Sheppes & Meiran, 2007), consistent with the finding that sadness tends to inhibit verbal fluency (Bartolic, Basso, Schefft, Glauser, & Titanic-Schefft, 1999). Sheppes and Meiran (2007) discovered that behaviors that should improve emotions, such as cognitive reappraisal immediately after an upsetting event transpired, did indeed reduce the latency to identify a happy event and increase the number of happy events reported.

Physiological measures of emotion

Some researchers assess physiological measures, such as skin or cardiovascular responses. Skin responses typically reflect the level of sweat at the surface of this skin. Referred to as electro-dermal responses, these measures include skin conductance level and short duration skin conductance. Cardiovascular measures include heart rate, blood pressure, total peripheral resistance, cardiac output, pre-ejection period--which is the interval between Q and carotid rise in the ECG, and heart rate variability.

These measures are assumed to reflect the autonomic nervous system, which modulates peripheral functions such as the cardiac, respiratory, and digestive systems. The autonomic nervous system comprises two main facets: the sympathetic branch, which generally activates these peripheral systems, and the parasympathetic branch, which generally inhibits these peripheral systems.

Generally, skin conductance level and the pre-ejection period is assumed to reflect sympathetic activity. Heart rate variability is assumed to manifest parasympathetic activity. Heart rate and blood pressure most likely reflect a combination of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches (for a review, see Cacioppo, Berntson, Larsen, Poehlmann, & Ito, 2000).

These physiological responses do seem to represent levels of arousal or activation. Lang, Greenwald, Bradley, and Hamm (1993), for example, demonstrated that such physiological responses, such as skin conductance level, do correlate with the subjective ratings of arousal that individuals experience in the aftermath of emotional stimuli, such as slides.

Several limitations of these physiological measures need to be recognized, however. First, the autonomic nervous system does not only underpin emotional responses, but supports other systems as well, such as homeostasis, effort, and attention (Berntson & Cacioppo, 2000). Hence, these other systems, and not merely the emotional state of individuals, could affect these physiological indices.

Second, these physiological indices might correlate with broad dimensions, particularly arousal or activation, but do not seem to represent discrete emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or dejection. Admittedly, some specific differences between emotions have been observed. Finger temperature, for example, seems to diminish more rapidly in anger than in fear--but does not differentiate other emotions (for a review, see Cacioppo, Berntson, Larsen, Poehlmann, & Ito, 2000). At this stage, thus, physiological responses cannot be utilized effectively to identify specific emotions. Indeed, physiological responses seemed to be more contingent upon the induction method that was used to evoke emotions than on the emotions themselves (Cacioppo, Berntson, Larsen, Poehlmann, & Ito, 2000).

Admittedly, more complex algorithms could be applied to relate combinations of physiological responses to discrete emotions (e.g., Kreibig, Wilhelm, Roth, & Gross, 2007;; Stemmler, 2004). Nevertheless, future research is warranted to clarify this possibility, as recommended by Mauss and Robinson (2009).

Third, the various physiological responses do not necessarily correlate with each other. Indeed, in some instances, heart rate might diminish as other indices of sympathetic activity rise (see Lang, Bradley, & Cuthbert, 1997). Accordingly, physiological responses cannot unequivocally represent arousal or activation. Some other factor or dimension, such as valence, might impinge on these indices (Russell & Barrett, 1999). Consistent with this proposition, blood pressure, cardiac output, heart rate, and skin conductance do seem to depend on valence--that is, whether the emotion is positive or negative (Cacioppo, Berntson, Larsen, Poehlmann, & Ito, 2000).

Heart rate variability

Heart rate variability is asssumed to reflect activity in the parasympathetic nervous system and thus reflect psychological adjustment (Thayer, Ahs, Fredrickson, Sollers, & Wager, 2012). That is, high variability reflects better adjustment& low variability reflects impaired adjustment.

In particular, while inhaling, the sympathetic nervous system increases the level of noradrenaline at a junction near the heart, increasing heart rate. While exhaling, the parasympathetic nervous system, via the vagal nerve, increases the level of acetylcholine at this junction, diminishing the heart rate. This difference in heart rate between inhalation and exhalation is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia--or heart rate variability.

A high difference indicates the parasympathetic nervous system is regulating the heart beat effectively and, therefore, is regarded as adaptive and helpful to physiological functioning. Consistent with this notion, heart rate variability is positively associated with resilience in demanding environments (Thayer, Ahs, Fredrickson, Sollers, & Wager, 2012). Conversely, low heart rate variability is a feature of many illnesses, including heart disease.


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Last Update: 5/28/2016