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date: 18 November 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter summarizes findings showing that mild positive affect facilitates thinking, problem solving, and social interaction through increased cognitive flexibility and explores a possible role for neuropsychology in understanding these effects. Several lines of research show that mild happy feelings, induced in everyday ways that people often encounter in the course of their daily lives, promote effective thinking and problem solving by enabling flexible thinking that allows the person to respond to the situation in its complex context. Studies have demonstrated that positive affect engenders motives such as kindness, helpfulness, and generosity, but also positive-affect maintenance and fairness to oneself as well as to others. Recent work is showing that one reason this occurs is because positive affect facilitates cognitive flexibility characterized by openness to useful information (even if it is negative in tone), reduced “defensiveness,” and the ability to see multiple sides of the situation and switch attention among them. This ability to hold multiple ideas or facets of a situation in mind, in turn, fosters a better ability to solve complex problems, both interpersonal and nonsocial. Another result of this kind of openness to information and cognitive flexibility that is fostered by positive affect is increased enjoyment of variety in safe situations and improved ability to deal with a large, complex decision task or set of material or options. Another, however, is reduced risk taking in dangerous situations, as people—although more optimistic about winning—are also more aware of the negative utility or consequences of a loss. Most recently, research is focusing on positive affect's beneficial effect on self-control of several types, including its facilitation of flexible attention deployment that enables both broadened attention and focus on a target task. This ability is reflected in superior incidental learning and divided attention, without impaired performance on the target task. This chapter summarizes some of these findings and explores a possible role for neuropsychology in understanding these effects, arguing not for the superiority of one level of analysis (behavioral, cognitive, neuropsychological) over others, but for their integration and a search for the ways in which each can contribute to the others.

Keywords: anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), broadened focus, choice overload, cognitive flexibility, complex decision making, creative problem solving, distractibility, dopamine hypothesis, flexible thinking, helpfulness, positive affect, problem solving, risk prefe

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