Affect Infusion Definition
Affect infusion occurs when feelings (moods, emotions) exert an invasive and subconscious influence on the way people think, form judgments, and behave in social situations. Affect can influence both the content of thinking and behavior (informational effect), and the process and style of thinking (processing effects). Some examples of affect infusion include (a) forming more negative judgments of a person when in a bad mood, (b) being more cooperative and friendly in a bargaining encounter due to a positive affective state, and (c) paying more systematic attention to the details of a judgmental task when in a negative rather than a positive affective state. Mild, subconscious moods can be an especially important source of affect infusion, and paradoxically, affect infusion is most likely when a person needs to deal with a more complex and demanding task that requires more open, constructive thinking.
Affect Infusion History
The possibility that affective states can exert an invasive influence on thinking and behavior has long been recognized by writers and philosophers, but the reasons for these effects remained incompletely understood until very recently. Some classical conditioning theories suggest that unrelated affective states can influence thoughts and actions simply because they coincide in space and time. For example, in John B. Watson’s well-known Little Albert Studies, young children could be conditioned to respond with fear to a previously innocuous target, a furry rabbit, when encountering the rabbit coincided with loud noise. In other work, evaluations of a newly met person could be influenced by the irrelevant affective states elicited by being in a pleasant or an unpleasant room. Within psychodynamic (Freudian) work, attempts to repress affective states were thought to result in the infusion of affect into unrelated judgments and activities. For example, people who were instructed to suppress their fear of an expected electric shock were more likely to see others as fearful (project fear) compared to another group who were not trying to suppress their fear.
Affect Infusion Mechanisms
Contemporary theories emphasize the cognitive (mental) processes that underlie affect infusion and link feelings to thoughts and behavior. Affect can influence the content of thinking due to two psychological processes: through memory processes (affect-priming effects) and through misattribution processes (affect-as-information effects). According to affect priming theory, affective states make it easier for people to remember, think of, and use affect-related thoughts and ideas (mood congruence), as well as concepts that were experienced in a matching rather than a nonmatching affective state (mood-state dependence). Thus, a happy person will selectively remember and use concepts that are positive rather than negative, and so will make more positive judgments and interpretations about ongoing events than will a sad person. The greater availability in memory of affectively congruent ideas can also exert an affect-consistent influence on what people pay attention to, what they recall, the kind of inferences they make, as well as judgments and, ultimately, behaviors. According to the second process, people may sometimes mistakenly use their affective state as a shortcut (heuristic cue) to infer their evaluative reactions to a target (the “how-do-I-feel-about-it” heuristic). This latter process is most likely when the processing capacity and processing motivation are limited, and so a simple, easy-to-generate response is acceptable.
Not only can affect color the information people remember and use and the content of their thinking, it can also influence how a task is processed. Generally, positive affective states tend to produce a more open, constructive, creative information processing style, where preexisting schematic knowledge predominates (assimilative processing). Negative affect in turn promotes a more systematic, detail-oriented, and externally focused processing style (accommodative processing). These processing differences are most likely due to the influence of positive and negative affective states in signaling to the person that the surrounding situation is either beneficial or threatening. Positive mood indicates that the situation is safe and preexisting knowledge can be applied, and negative mood signals that the situation is potentially dangerous and requires a more detailed information-processing style that pays greater attention to new information.
Integrative theories such as the affect infusion model emphasize the critical role that different information processing strategies play in determining whether, and to what extent, affective states are likely to infuse thoughts, judgments, and behaviors. This model identifies four distinct processing strategies relative to the degree of effort (how hard a person tries to deal with a problem) and the degree of openness (the extent to which new information is sought rather than old knowledge is used). The four processing (thinking) strategies identified by the affect infusion model are direct access processing (low effort, closed), motivated processing (high effort, closed), heuristic processing (low effort, open), and substantive processing (high effort, open). Responses based on the direct access and motivated processing styles should be impervious to affect infusion, but heuristic and substantive processing should produce affect infusion.
Affect Infusion Evidence
Affect Congruent Effects
Numerous experimental studies have demonstrated affect infusion into memory, thinking, judgments, inferences, and behaviors. Simple, uninvolving, off-the-cuff judgments in response to telephone surveys or street surveys, when processing motivation and resources were limited, show significant affect infusion consistent with the heuristic processing strategy. More elaborately and substantively processed judgments about the self, others, attributions for success and failure, and intimate relationships all show affect congruence consistent with affect-priming mechanisms and the substantive processing strategy. Several experiments have specifically measured processing variables such as processing latencies and recall memory and found evidence supporting the process-mediation of these effects. Affect infusion was also found to exert an affect-congruent influence on complex, strategic social behaviors that require substantive processing, such as negotiation, the use of verbal requests, and responses to public situations.
Consistent with the affect infusion model, several studies found that tasks that require more open and elaborate thinking will, paradoxically, be more influenced by a person’s affective state. This occurs because more extensive thinking tends to magnify affect infusion, as people are more likely to use affectively primed thoughts and associations to perform such more demanding tasks. For example, affect was found to have a great influence on judgments about more unusual rather than typical people, badly matched rather than well-matched couples, and serious rather than simple relationship conflicts.
Other experiments have found that positive and negative affect promote qualitatively different information processing styles. People in induced negative moods paid better attention to the situation they found themselves in, were less likely to succumb to common judgmental biases such as the fundamental attribution error, were more resistant to incorporating misleading details into their eyewitness memories, and produced higher-quality and more effective persuasive arguments, consistent with the more accommodating, systematic, and externally focused processing style recruited by negative affect.
Affect Infusion Significance and Implications
These findings suggest that the experience of an affective state, including mild, everyday moods, can often have an insidious and little appreciated influence on almost everything people think and do. This occurs even when the source of the affective state has nothing to do with the task at hand. For example, feeling happy because it is a sunny day can make a person form more positive judgments about a variety of issues that have nothing to do with the weather. Negative affect can subtly influence the way people evaluate themselves, their partners, and the world, and positive affect can lead to more optimistic judgments and inferences and more confident and cooperative interpersonal behaviors. Many of these effects can be understood as the cognitive consequences of affective states, affect priming mechanisms in particular. A better understanding of when, why, and how affect infusion occurs is of considerable practical importance in clinical, organizational, and health psychology.
- Forgas, J. P. (2002). Feeling and doing: The role of affect in interpersonal behaviour. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 1-28.