Picking the Right Brain State for the Job

The brain is like an instrument we can tune for the job at hand—something like tuning a guitar to the right key for a song. Reading the fine print in a contract, cognitive scientists tell us, takes a very different state than, say, coming up with a clever name for your business.

Our emotions are the keyboard we play in tuning our brains. Here are some of the ways moods match to tasks at hand:

By allowing the brain to generate a greater fluidity of thoughts, our positive moods make us better at coming up with novel ideas, solving problems, and making decisions.

On the downside, though, upbeat moods make us a bit more gullible, by weakening our ability to detect the weaknesses in an argument someone is making. We are more prone to making snap decisions we might regret later. And we are less careful in paying attention to the details of tasks.

The upside of being down, or at least more somber: we can more easily focus on those details we missed or ignored while we were upbeat—we pay more attention even to boring jobs. The take home: get serious before you read that contract.

Some other benefits to sour moods: we’re more skeptical, and so less likely to take someone’s word for it—even an expert’s. We ask more questions and come to our own independent conclusion.

Then there’s anger. Aristotle wrote, “anyone can get angry—that’s easy. But to get angry in the right way, for the right reason, at the right time, and with the right person—that’s not so easy.”

So have an unfair charge on your credit card bill? Get angry—but in the right way. Anger—which can so readily get us to do or say something we regret later—has its virtues. If we can channel the anger, it raises our energy and focuses us on changing things for the better—persisting in complaining until we get that charge removed.

Some downsides of anger are obvious, like the toxicity it puts in the air for those around us. But some costs are more subtle: anger makes us pessimistic, and so more likely to give up rather than keep trying after some setback. We have a built-in negative bias toward everything we see, and so a negative spin in our judgments. And then there’s the problem that our emotions are contagious—so if we’re cranky at the office, we can not just ruin everyone else’s day, but also their effectiveness.