How the Positive Affect facilitates Creative Cognitive Processes

A Short Study: How the Positive Affect facilitates Creative Cognitive Processes


This short study seeks to find out how the positive affect facilitates creative cognitive processes. After shortly introducing the subject it centres on Isen et al’s 1987 experiments Duncker’s (1945) candle problem. It describes the successful experiment and the conclusions drawn from it by the team of experimenters. Next, it draws its own conclusions which are in line with Isen et al’s 1987 experimental conclusions, which held two factors possibly responsible for the facilitating effects of the positive affect on creative cognitive processes. The conclusion discourses briefly on the two factors, elucidating them in terms of emotive influences on cognitive processes.


Mild induced mood states, commonly known as emotions, can affect cognitive processes like attention (Mischel, Ebbesen, and Zeiss, 1973), memory retrieval (Isen, Shalker, Clark and Carp, 1978), evaluative and judgemental processes (Isen and Shalker, 1982) and decision-making under both certainty (Isen and Means, 1983) and risk (Isen, Means, Patrick and Nowicki, 1982) (Mike Oaksford, 1996). This study looks into how such mild induced moods, particularly positive emotions, affect the cognitive process of decision-making, particularly creative or ‘divergent’ cognitive processes. It particularly focuses on the work of Isen et al (1987) on this.

The main construct of this study is Isen et al’s comparative study of 4 groups subjected to Duncker’s (1945) candle problem. In their experiment 2 a group was subjected to a short comedy clip to induce a positive mood state in them. A control group was subjected to a neutral film clip to control for a positive film effect – that is, the possibility of any effects observed for the experimental conditions that were due to the film and not to the induced mood states. A second control group was not subjected to any films so that no induction of an affective state would act as further control for the film effect. A third control group was subjected to a film clip that induced a negative mood state to check that any effect observed for the experimental condition was specific to the positive mood.

The candle problem requires candidates must support a lighted candle on a door using just a box of tacks, some matches and the candle. The correct requires the realisation that the box of tacks can have multiple uses and tacking the box to the door can allow the candidates in a group to stand the candle on the box as it remains tacked to the door.

Isen et al observed that the candidates of the group with positive affect performed better than the other three groups – the negative, neutral and no-films groups – all of which had no significant variance in performance among themselves. The experimenters concluded from this that positive moods facilitated creative problem solving while negative ones did not.

Isen (1987) interpreted the observations of this experiment on the effects of positive affect in terms of two factors. The first of these is the long-term memory factor. The positive affect can act as a retrieval cue for positive material from long-term memory (Laird et al, 1982). Thus, the candidates in a positive mood could recall more possible functions for an object, the box of tacks here, when in that psychological condition.

The second factor, as per Isen, is that the positive affect has effect on the way information is processed in the brain in the working memory rather than the way in which information is retrieved. The experimenters argued that the positive affect itself affected the cognitive processes themselves rather than just the resources available to them. Isen et al: “It seems that positive affect should be viewed as influencing the way in which material is processed, rather than just the amount of capacity present” (Isen et al, 1987, p.1130). Since it is assumed that information is processed in the working memory it can be concluded from Isen et al’s arguments that the positive affect works directly on the working memory processes rather than indirectly, with the help of resources available. This may have directly enabled the candidates in the induced positive mood to work out more possible functions for the box of tacks in the working memory (Mike Oaksford et al, 1996).


Cognitive science perceives the human being as a container of subagents each of which are functionally specialised in solving problems in different domains – recognition of friend or foe, choice of mate, when to sleep and when not to, regulation of the heart rate, etc. These subagents are activated by cues from the environment but there is an organisational dilemma to be solved in this process. There are some sets of subagents that should not be activated together while there are other sets that should. For example (Johannes Heidema & Willem Labuschagne, 2004), sleep and flight from a predator are mutually incompatible. Sleep is not possible when the heart is racing from a sense of danger. This is not by chance but an instinctive survival response to danger. Thus, there is need of super-ordinate agents that can co-ordinate suppression and activation of subagents. These super-ordinate agents are emotions. They assist in memory retrieval (Johannes Heidema & Willem Labuschagne, 2004).

In the light of Heidema’s and Labuschagne’s position on the emotions being super-ordinate agents that are called upon by cues from environments, both preferred and unsafe, Isen et al’s first factor can be explained. As Heidema and Labuschagne themselves explain preferred environments generate cues that call upon positive valence which, in turn, allow a “broadened though-action repertoire facilitating exploration, learning and creativity”. In the case of Isen et al’s 1987 experiments the converse is held true. Positive valence induced before the experiment promoted exploration, learning and, specifically, creativity which allowed the candidates to solve the candle problem easily. In Heidema’s and Labuschagne’s views negative valence generated by unsafe environments narrows down the thought-action repertoire which promote quick and decisive action, a necessity not generated by the candle problem in which nothing urgent or unsafe is promoted. In this case the experimental environment of the candle problem must be taken into consideration and since it is patently a safe one in which no urgent survival tactics have to be adopted the negative mood was not conducive to solving the problem while the positive mood, conducive to needed creativity, was.

In the same light of Heidema’s and Labuschagne’s explanations, the second factor, that the positive affect promoted the solution-making in the working memory without retrieval from the long-term memory, it must be taken into account that this is almost intuitive. The duo, Heidema and Labuschagne, suggest that intuition is “hot cognition’, a process fuelled by emotions generated by cues from the environment (Johannes Heidema & Willem Labuschagne, 2004). So here also the same reasoning as for the first factor holds true. Taking the situation conversely, a positive affect can promote creative intuitive processes by which the candidates can solve the problem and since the intuitive process or “hot cognition” does not require much retrieval from the long-term memory it takes place in the working memory, a position asserted by Isen et al (1987), supported by Mike Oaksford et al, 1996, who asserted that creative thinking may also be called ‘divergent’ thinking, and deducible from Heidema and Labuschagne, 2004.

                                              List of References

Oaksford, Mike, et al, Mood, Reasoning and Central Executive Processes, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory and Cognition, 1996, Vol. 22, No: 2, 476-497.

Heidema, Johannes, and Labuschagne, Willem, Emancipating agents: Need Schrodinger’s cat be let into the Chinese room, The Journal of Thematic Dialogue, 3, (Dec 2004), Special issue on embodiment. Extracted on 1st November, 2005, from:

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