Negative emotional states have been shown to decrease executive function, right? It turns out that some people may get a boost from a bad mood. In a study conducted by Tara McAuley at the University of Waterlo, people who are highly emotionally reactive had an edge on working memory and analytic tasks.
Emotional reactivity is the “sensitivity, intensity, and duration of emotional responses associated with mood.” People who are “high reactive” have rapid, intense, and long lasting reactions; people who are “low reactive” are typically slower to have an emotional response, and their emotional responses will tend to be less intense and shorter in duration.
One would assume that being “low reactive” would be associated with improved executive function, as these individuals would be better able to regulate their actions without being overwhelmed. McAuley found that the opposite is true. When “high reactive” individuals were subjected to negative emotional reactions, they were found to perform better on executive function tasks; whereas other subjects’ performance was hampered by a negative emotion.
The reason for this boost is unclear. It is possible that highly reactive individuals have negative emotional reactions more often, meaning that these types of reactions are less novel and therefore less distracting.
The key takeaway is that the impact of emotional reactions on executive function is still being explored. This relationship, though crucial, may vary from student to student. This is another opportunity to help students build self-awareness. When we teach students to use executive function strategies or mindfulness strategies, we can help students reflect and identify how emotion is affecting their academic performance. Students who are highly reactive may be prone to powerful and sometimes negative reactions, but by using strategies they can still be successful students.
- Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director