Attention can be focused or it can be diffused. Attentional focus has been shown to be affected by mood or affect; with positive affect leading to a broadening of attentional focus; and negative affect, in general been shown to be associated with a narrowing of focus.
However, Gable and Harmon-Jones argue that emotion or affect is not a uni-dimensional construct, but has at least two dimensions: affective valence- i.e. whether it is felt as pleasurable or dis-pleasurable; and motivational direction- i.e. the action tendency to approach or avoid in pursuit of a preventive/promotional goal.
Much work on emotions has emphasized that they have a number of underlying dimensions. Two dimensions that have received considerable attention are affective valence, the felt pleasure or displeasure, and motivational direction, the action tendency associated with a particular emotional state—approach or withdrawal. Approach motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to go toward an object, whereas withdrawal motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to move away from an object.
They also argue that much of the extant literature on emotion-attention linkage has focused on emotional valence alone, with just one type of motivational direction, and thus has not clarified the (in)dependent role of valence and motivational direction as regards to attention.
Thus, for e.g., the finding that positive emotions lead to broadening of attention is focused on such research as emotions of joy, contentment etc that are low in approach motivation and are emotions felt after the goal has been reached.
Similarly, the research that has found that negative emotions lead to narrowing of focus have relied on emotions such as fear, anger etc that are high in withdrawal motivation and are pre-goal.
I believe, it is important to step back a little here and go back to our conception of happiness-ennui (mental well-being) continuum and sadness-mania (mental illness) continuum. Another way to conceptualize them is to see sadness having negative valence and low withdrawal motivation – it is passive; mania as having positive valence and high approach motivation- mania is characterized by immense desire for a goal and is pre -goal. Happiness is post goal emotion and is characterized by positive valence and low approach motivation- you have already reached the goal and do not need to exert much efforts in goal directed activity; ennui/boredom/listlessness is negative in valence and has high withdrawal motivation- it is pre-goal- a search for a worthwhile goal.
Another way to make the difference stark is employ the terminology of Berridge et al: happiness is related to liking and the opioid system; while mania is related to wanting and the dopamine system. Depression/sadness is related to disliking /feeling pain while ennui/boredom is related to dreading the outcome/feeling anxious (nothing to do and hence life is useless/meaningless!..anxiety but existential anxiety). Berridghe et al have shown that wanting/liking and dreading/disliking differ and have different neural and neurochemichal correlates.
To become a little philosophical, the wanting/disliking mental illness continuum leading to mania or depression in extremes is to be avoided (thus the dictum of all religions to shun desire/ be stoic) while the happiness-ennui/boredom/existential anxiety system is more preferable where you focus on liking positive outcomes and dreading negative/neutral ones. While the former, to paraphrase Freud, is the hysterical misery at worst, the latter is common unhappiness at worst.
But anyway that was long detour. Lets get back to the studies by Gable et al.
In the first study, the authors showed that motivational direction was relevant and was the reason behind the positivity-broadening of attentional focus effect. they showed that positive emotions lead to broadening of attention only in low approach motivation condition; but when the positive emotion had high approach motivation (emotions like desire. engagement etc), the positive affect lead to narrowing of focus.
Now a brief detour into methodology: the attentional focus is usually measured using local-global tasks whereby it is determined whether one is paying attention to global features or local features of an ambiguous/mixed stimuli. For eg, the most popular of these consists of a global big H made up of smaller (say 5 in number) F’s and then determining whether the subject notices the global H or the local F. Details can be seen in the Gable papers which are open access.
Now the authors found robust support for their hypothesis that it is the motivational direction and not affective valence that determines the attentional focus. They also relate it to adaptivity.
Positive affects, particularly those low in approach motivation, suggest a comfortable, stable environment and allow for a broadening of attention and cognition, which may serve adaptive functions (Carver, 2003; Fredrickson, 2001). However, broadening does not occur when positive affects are high in approach motivation. Such positive affects often encourage specific action tendencies, such as tenacious goal pursuit, and an associated reduction in attentional breadth. This reduced attentional breadth may prove adaptive, as it assists in obtaining goals.
They also extend these finding to negative affects and depression etc and I can easily relate them to earlier work I have covered regarding the danger or safety of environment and promotional/ preventive focus:
Together with past research, the present research supports the idea that low- and high-approach-motivated positive affect produce opposite effects on attentional breadth. It is possible that the intensity of withdrawal motivation exerts similar attentional effects; that is, low-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause broadening, whereas high-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause reduction in breadth. Indeed, such an interpretation would fit with past research. For example, individuals with depression, a low-intensity motivation, are more creative than nondepressed individuals (Andreasen, 1987) and show broadening of attention and memory (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005). In the case of low-motivated negative affects such as sadness and depression, “a more open, unfocused, unselective, low-effort mode of attention would prove not deficient but, on the contrary, beneficial” (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005, p. 456), as one disengages from a terminally blocked goal and becomes open to new possibilities (Klinger, 1975). The past research that found negative affect caused decreased attentional breadth may have evoked negative affective states that were high in withdrawal motivation (e.g., fear; Gasper & Clore, 2002).
This brings me to their current paper , aptly titled , The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows, that found exactly the effect hypothesized above that sadness/depressive mood was related to broadening of attention, while disgust, a negative emotion with high withdrawal motivation was related to narrowing of focus. they also found that the effect of negative emotion was mediated by arousal which could stand as a proxy for motivational direction.
These two experiments revealed that the relationship between negative affect and attentional precedence is more complex than commonly thought. In line with past theory and evidence, Experiment 2 demonstrated that negative affect caused a narrowing of attention. However, this narrowing occurred only when negative affect was high in motivational intensity. When negative affect was low in motivational intensity, in Experiment 1, it caused a broadening of attention. These results are consistent with the idea that the effect of emotion on local/global precedence is not due to negative versus positive affect, but is instead due to motivational intensity. Positive and negative affects of low motivational intensity broaden attention, whereas positive and negative affects of high motivational intensity narrow attention.
To me this is sufficient, clinching and converging proof of the theories I have been trying to develop with regards to emotions (specifically mania, depression, happiness and despair) and make clear that there are at least two dimensions to happiness/sadness and mental well being/illness constructs. Perhaps if we start liking what we have and stop coveting or wanting more, we have a philosophical, religious, as well as now a psychological, blueprint for how to lead the good life and how to avoid a living hell.
Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2010). The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows: Attentional Consequences of Negative Affects Low and High in Motivational Intensity Psychological Science, 21 (2), 211-215 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359622
Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2008). Approach-Motivated Positive Affect Reduces Breadth of Attention Psychological Science, 19 (5), 476-482 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02112.x