While happy children are considered to be better learners, a new study by psychologists at the University of Virginia and the University of Plymouth (United Kingdom) has challenged this long-held belief, by showing that happy children are outperformed by sad children, as far as attention to detail tasks are concerned.
The researchers came to this conclusion after conducting a series of experiments with children belonging to different age-groups, who had happy or sad moods induced with the aid of music (Mozart and Mahler) and selected video clips (Jungle Book and the Lion King).
Then they asked the groups to perform a task that required attention to detail - to observe a detailed image such as a house and a simple shape such as a triangle, and then locate the shape within the larger picture.
Each experiment with both music and video clips delivered conclusive results-children induced to feel a sad or neutral mood performing the task better than those induced to feel a happy state of mind.
"Happiness indicates that things are going well, which leads to a global, top-down style of information processing. Sadness indicates that something is amiss, triggering detail-orientated, analytical processing," said lead researcher Simone Schnall of the University of Plymouth, while describing the psychology behind the findings.
He added: "However, it is important to emphasize that existing research shows there are contexts in which a positive mood is beneficial for a child, such as when a task calls for creative thinking. But this particular research demonstrates that when attention to detail is required, it may do more harm than good."
Co-author Vikram Jaswal, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, also said that the findings contradict conventional wisdom that happiness always leads to optimal outcomes.
"The good feeling that accompanies happiness comes at a hidden cost. It leads to a particular style of thinking that is suited for some types of situations, but not others," said Jaswal.
The study currently appears online in the journal Developmental Science.