Attributions, discounting, and life satisfaction
In 1983, Norbert Schwarz and Gerald Clore set out to study whether people’s judgments of their life satisfaction could be influenced by their mood at the time of judgement.17 The researchers asked participants to do a filler sound perception task in a soundproof room, before participants were randomly assigned to write three pages about either a positive or negative event. This task was used as a mood induction, either priming participants to feel positive or negative as a result of their writing.
After the mood induction, participants were asked to rate how satisfied they were with their life overall, on a scale of 1 to 10.17 Not surprisingly, those who wrote about negative events ranked lower life satisfaction than those who wrote about positive events. Ultimately, the researchers found that asking participants to write vivid and detailed descriptions of either negative or positive life events influenced not only participants’ moods in the moment, but also their judgments of how satisfying their life was.
Now, you might be wondering about the purpose of the filler task in the soundproof room. There was another layer to the study, such that some participants were also warned that being in the soundproof room could make certain people feel tense or depressed.17 When the room effects were not mentioned, the results of life satisfaction were the same as before. However, when the room effects were mentioned, the writing task which served as a mood manipulation had no effects on people’s ratings of life satisfaction.
When given the chance to attribute a bad mood to a certain cause – regardless of its contribution to participants’ quality of life – the description task was discounted in influencing judgments of overall well-being.17 In other words, people discounted aspects of their lives as a cause of their bad mood when the soundproof room, another explanatory factor, was emphasized.
Availability heuristic, discounting and misattributions
Nortbert Schwarz, the same researcher from the previous case study, also set out with a team of psychologists to study the availability heuristic and discounting.18 One of the most known heuristics in the field of judgement and decision making, the availability heuristic is when people estimate the frequency or likelihood of an event based on the ease with which information comes to mind. The easier it is to recall something, the more frequent it seems.
Extending the availability heuristic, the researchers showed that if you give people a reason why thinking about something may be hard, then they will discount the applicability of recall on their judgements.18 40 participants were asked to either recall 6 or 12 instances when they behaved assertively. Additionally, there was either no background music playing while participants came up with examples, or there was background music playing for which the researchers apologized, as it could be a bit distracting. After coming up with 6 or 12 examples, participants were then asked to rate how assertive they are.
The researchers found that when there was no background music, then those who recalled 6 examples rated themselves as more assertive than those who had recalled 12 examples.18 The more examples asked of participants, the more difficult it was to recall so many events, which then influenced participants to question their assertiveness. However, when there was background music playing, there was no difference between recalling 6 or 12 examples on determinants of assertiveness. These results show that when there was a misattribution error and people had an excuse for their difficulties coming up with 12 examples, their poor recall was discounted.