Listen, we all have those days when every little thing seems to be going wrong, and so we’re just feeling grumpy as hell. It happens to even the brightest rays of sunshine among us. But those of us who tend to dwell in their bad moods for an extended amount of time should take caution: A new study just published in the journal Science Advances found our negative emotions—even just incidental frustration due to a spilled cup of coffee or getting stuck in a traffic jam—can actually have a significant impact on our social judgment. Specifically, those negative emotions can make us less likely to trust people.
In an experiment that I’m surprised anyone volunteered for, researchers spent some time riling up a group of (willing!) participants in a lab setting by threatening to give them tiny, unpleasant electric shocks—and sometimes following through on that threat. When participants were adequately pissed off and anxious, they then were asked to participate in a trust exercise where they had to decide how much money they wanted to invest in an unknown partner who may or may not pay them back. Compared to people who hadn’t been made upset before taking part in the trust exercise, the folks in a bad mood trusted their partner significantly less.
The researchers also had these upset participants hooked up to an MRI scanner while they did the exercise, and the scans showed their negative emotional state seemed to be directly affecting their brain functioning. One brain region called the temporoparietal junction, which is involved in understanding other people’s thinking, was “significantly suppressed by negative affect,” a news release explains, and that region’s connection to the amygdala (which evaluates social threat) was also shuttered. For the folks who hadn’t been aggravated beforehand, the strength of temporoparietal junctions’ connection to other parts of the brain involved in social recognition actually predicted how much they trusted their partners.
In other words, a person’s frustrated mood essentially short-circuited their brain in a way that led them to not trusting the people around them.
“Negative affect suppresses the social cognitive neural machinery important for understanding and predicting others’ behavior,” the researchers said in the news release. “Negative emotions, even if they are incidental, may distort how we make important social decisions.”
Being able to trust other people is crucial for maintaining our daily relationships with everyone from our co-workers and friends to our family and lovers. Feeling like you’re under threat from everyone around you is a fast track to unnecessary conflict and self-isolation. If you’re someone who tends to simmer and stew in their frustrations or anxieties, it’s important to recognize how that negative energy can be affecting your relationships—even if the thing that set you off has nothing to do with anyone you’re interacting with. Studies like this one show how much our emotions can affect our brain itself, which in turn affects our judgment and behavior toward others.
No one’s saying you need to be happy 24/7 or all your relationships will suffer. This research just suggests there’s a lot of incentive for trying to develop positive ways to respond to life’s most annoying happenings, from spilled coffee to scheming scientists trying to shock you with electricity.
Instead of letting the emotions eat you whole in such instances, psychologist and life coach Danielle Dowling, Psy.D., recommendsmaking a point to simply acknowledge your emotion, sit with it, and then release it. “Practicing mindfulness enables you to calm stress and soothe yourself,” she writes. “In a state of mindfulness, you make space to step back, reflect, and thoughtfully respond—rather than spontaneously react—to the varying ups and downs of life.”