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Grumpy people are better lie detectors

There is an unexpected research finding that examines how you think and make decisions when you’re in a bad/sad mood or feeling a little cranky.

To me, the finding is counterintuitive. But it’s research-based, and for much of the previous week, it got my undivided attention.

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tested “the ability to detect a lie.” Here’s the result: “Being in a bad mood improves a person’s ability to accurately detect deceptive communication.” If we’re in a good mood, we tend to be “more trusting and gullible.”

Here’s one practical application of this research. If you’re someone inclined toward fear, anxiety or anger, you are, perhaps, less likely to place yourself in jeopardy and more likely — when you do find yourself in some kinds of peril — to “navigate” your way out of a tough situation more deftly. It turns out there are “cognitive and social benefits” to being in a bad mood.

This remarkable piece of information came to me via a NYTimes.com “Smarter Living” blog. The author started with acknowledging that “age-old wisdom, trust your gut.” But then he asks, “What if your gut is too happy to be trusted?” Or differently put, maybe “you are a better human lie detector when you’re not happy.” This finding is further affirmed in a recent article in Psychology Today. I wish I had known this earlier.

We can think about this information in a variety of ways. There are definitely public policy and political considerations. For example, if you are not at all happy about what happened in last week’s midterm elections, it might make you more clear-headed about how you listen to, support and vote for candidates in the future. If you are ecstatic, stay cautious.

We can also think about this research finding in terms of how we make decisions about our health and well-being. For example, if you’re cranky because you have recently gained weight, you might be more likely to read the label on the box of cheese-flavored crackers you like so much and less apt to eat individually wrapped truffles without checking the calorie count.

This finding has relevance in a multitude of arenas. Maybe you are a little perturbed with your spouse or partner — maybe you have angst around a child or grandchild’s behavior. Let’s say your granddaughter made what you believe to be a very poor judgment call about a relationship or a career choice and you are upset she did that. She’s not — she’s happy. Trod carefully on this kind of turf. It’s one thing to be angry at situations and quite another to be angry with people you love. More research definitely needed in that area. If you think about this too much — you might require that truffle.

The bottom line is a reminder to be aware of our attitudes, emotions and feelings and recognize they influence us in ways we may not fully anticipate. I am not encouraging you to be grumpy, but if that is where you land, leverage the moment. Be cautious.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.

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