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Five Ways Emotions Guide Teens to Academic Success by Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D.

Posted by admin 9:07 pm, 23 April 2014


Emotions contribute significantly to your intelligence and your ability to navigate through your life. Understanding your emotions is essential, considering the information they can provide, the ways in which they affect the decisions you make, how much they determine the ways in which you might respond to situations, and the motivation they make available that can enable you to reach your goals.


The results of psychological research can tell you some of the fascinating ways in which emotions can guide you to succeed:


1.  Focusing on your feelings, instead of details, may lead to better decision quality for certain complex decisions. A great number of your decisions are influenced by your emotional responses because emotions are designed to evaluate and summarize experiences and inform your actions. Thus, emotions provide information about your circumstances in a simple, quick way that does not involve a lot of cognition (thinking about it). They attempt to tell you if a situation is optimal or not


So, should you trust your feelings when making a decision? At times you may focus on your feelings regarding your options and make the decision based on what feels best to you. But at other times your decision-making is more cognitive as you consciously reflect upon various factors that are held in your memory in order to make the best choice. Another model, which is called a dual process theory, indicates that there are multiple sources of information to consider in decision-making that may be either deliberative or affective (Epstein, 1994; Osman, 2004).

Researchers compared decision strategies and found that focusing on feelings instead of details led to better decision quality for certain complex decisions (Mikels, Maglio, Reed, & Kaplowitz, 2011). In addition, the researchers found that deliberative processes could sometimes interfere with using emotion for decision making if over-thinking the decision occurred. The basic conclusion of the research was that when the going gets tough, use your gut feelings and don’t over-think your decision.  (Along these same lines, the New York Times columnist, David Brooks, suggests an innovative approach to enlisting the aid of your emotions and your unconscious in personal decisions: flip a coin, but don’t simply follow the result of the coin flip. Rather, pay attention to how you feel when you look at the coin.)

2. Understanding your response to anxiety is important since the same anxiety that can lead some to succeed can lead others to fail.  Neurological researchers believe that anxiety is fundamental to motivating your thoughts in ways that are beneficial and helpful (Luu, Tucker, & Derryberry, 1998). At optimal levels, the action potential of anxiety can sharpen your focus, help you to think on your feet, and energize you. Imagine how you might feel before a physical contest, such as running a race, where your nervous energy is invigorating and gives you a boost. The nervous energy provided by anxiety can be just as useful in situations that require using cognitive skills as it is in physical ones; that is, if you are otherwise prepared for the task.

Researchers also have found that, for some students, added stress and tension—bodily responses to anxiety—improve creativit, productivity, and the quality of their work (Schraw, Wadkins, & Olafson, 2007). So when the demands of your academic life lead you to experience stress, try to use that tension to focus on completing the work efficiently and creatively.

3.  In competitive situations, fear can interfere with success if it causes you to change your strategy.  Although fear can motivate you in some positive ways, researchers found that in competitive situations it can interfere with success or get in your way if it causes you to change your strategy (Fernandez Slezak & Sigman, 2011). For example, when an opponent is stronger, you may be tempted to change from the typical strategy you might use when competing with someone who has skills similar to your own. Researchers testing this idea designed a study using a time-controlled chess game (Fernandez Slezak & Sigman, 2011). In the study, players whose opponents had weaker or similar skills played faster and their chances of winning increased. However, with stronger opponents, the players concentrated more on not losing, and they played more slowly, accurately, and cautiously. But in doing so their likelihood of winning decreased. In their attempt to avoid losing, the players had shifted their strategy to a more conservative approach that focused on preventing loss by being more cautious and playing slower and more accurately. Players increased the likelihood of winning against strong opponents when they adopted strategies they used against opponents with similar strength. So if you fear your opponent in a competitive situation, keep in mind that you may be more likely to win if you maintain your usual strategy rather than if you take on a more defensive approach.

4.  When focusing on reading material for a test, pay attention to unappealing sentences. The emotion of interest is related to, and motivates, excitement, exploration, attention, perception, and challenge (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Izard, 1991). When you are interested you are fascinated, curious, and engaged. In learning situations, interest can help you or it can possibly get in your way. A study of the effect of interest on attention and learning took a look at individuals studying reading material (Shirey & Reynolds, 1988). Although sentences in the readings that were most interesting were learned better, less attention was paid to them as a strategy for learning the material. The individuals who were effective at learning the material read the more interesting sentences faster than the less interesting ones. They gave more attention to information that required extra effort, and were better able to identify important information in the text. For example, the more effective readers were able to sort out sentences that were written in a more interesting way but had less important information from those that had information they considered important to remember. So if you are reading material for a test, you may be inclined to focus on those sentences that are appealing to you and dismiss those that are not. However, according to these researchers, you may benefit by doing the opposite since you will most likely remember the interesting material, but the boring stuff is what needs your attention for effective performance.

5.  Showing the pride you have in achievements can help you socially. In social situations, the expression of pride tells others of your value, confidence, and importance. The non-verbal expression of pride— standing tall with chest extended, head tilted back, and a small smile—is recognized across cultures (Tracy & Robbins, 2007). Yet although the pride expression is universal, the acceptability of expressing this emotion varies among cultures. Researchers Azim Shariff and Jessica Tracy (2009) wanted to find out if the expression of pride does, in fact, promote perception of high status. In six studies they found strong support of an association between the pride expression and the concept of high status when compared with other emotions such as disgust, fear, happiness, anger, shame, and embarrassment. In all six studies the association between pride and high status was large, suggesting that the pride expression—an expanded body posture, small smile, head tilted back, and arms extended—transmits an automatically interpreted message of high status. They concluded that pride sends a message to observers to seek out proud individuals as members of a social group, in contrast to someone expressing anger, where the person may appear to be powerful but the emotion signals threat and motivates avoidance in others. So, showing the pride you have in your achievements through your natural expressions can help you.

For more information about my book for young adults Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings  see my website: http://www.marylamia.com