Mood Awareness

Emotional intelligence (a broad collection of abilities related to understanding and utilizing affect) and alexithymia (a stunted awareness of one's emotional states) have been "hot topics" recently in both the popular press and scientific circles. These notions share a common component, that awareness of one's moods and emotions can contribute to successful mood regulation. This idea has been pursued in a recent set of empirical studies.

Mood awareness refers to individual differences in attention directed toward one's mood states. It is measured by the Mood Awareness Scale (MAS; Swinkels & Giuliano, 1995), a reliable 10-item measure composed of two related but distinct dimensions: mood labeling and mood monitoring. Mood labeling refers to the ability to identify and categorize one's mood states, whereas mood monitoring refers to the tendency to focus on, evaluate, or scrutinize one's mood.

The processes of mood labeling and mood monitoring may be better understood by an analogy. There is a marked difference in the approaches used by a physician and by a hypochondriac when trying to assess states of health. The physician, because of training, experience, or insight, is usually successful in making an accurate diagnosis of an illness and recommending some course of treatment. In other words, the medical condition is diagnosed or categorized fairly readily, and steps are then taken to remedy the complaint (e.g., "take two aspirin and call me in the morning") or maintain the state of health (e.g., "keep jogging to work every day"). In contrast, hypochondriacs are quite concerned about the state of their physical health, and in fact may become preoccupied with keeping track of their health status. A process of monitoring physical symptoms and checking for the onset of illness may become an ongoing ritual. The problem, of course, is that although hypochondriacs may be vigilant in checking their health, they are apt to be misled many times about their condition. In other words, they check on their physical states often, but may not reach a satisfactory or final judgment about their health, concluding instead that they are suffering from some vague bodily complaint.

Several studies have demonstrated that labeling and monitoring exert different influences on other mood-relevant variables. For example, in comparison with low mood labelers, high mood labelers tend to seek and be satisfied with social support, experience positive affect, have higher levels of self-esteem, be extraverted, be less socially anxious or neurotic, and express greater global life satisfaction. High (as compared with low) mood monitors, by contrast, tend to experience more intense affective states, experience greater negative affect, have lower self-esteem, and report neurotic tendencies. Various other studies have investigated the role of mood awareness in: depression; self-views; reactions to life stress; self-reported physical symptoms; intelligence and cognitive abilities; and numerous other personality dimensions.

More importantly, mood monitoring and mood labeling play a role in the process of mood regulation. Most people are motivated to sustain a positive mood (mood maintenance) or change a negative one (mood repair), although monitors and labelers might be more or less successful at this task. One study (Swinkels & Giuliano, 1995, Study 4), for example, found that although high mood monitors agreed that their moods influenced their behavior and were important to them, they reported less success at regulating their negative mood states. Another study (Giuliano, 1995) found that the ability of mood labelers and mood monitors to repair their negative moods over time differed. High labelers were able to take relatively quick action to alter their mood states, whereas high monitors tended to wallow in their negative moods for a longer period of time.

The reason for these differences can be understood by returning to the medical analogy. The act of labeling something implies that it becomes identified or categorized for further use. The physician who has made an accurate diagnosis now knows the likely course and duration of the illness, the available treatments, and the number of subsequent office visits for which the patient can be billed. In this sense mood labeling should generally promote constructive thought and behavior in regard to one's feelings. A mood that is readily labeled is a mood that does not need to be dwelt upon in order to be understood: the mood state has been identified and the stage presumably is set for acting on that mood in some way.

In contrast, monitoring implies a certain degree of vigilance by an individual, which may or may not be productive. Like the hypochondriac who is nervously attuned to each twitch and tremor of his or her body, mood monitoring would imply a similar type of examination of or dwelling upon one's mood; for some, perhaps, to the point of unhealthfulness, but for most out of a simple concern with tracking the progress of one's feelings. The difficulty with mood monitoring, then, is that it may contribute to becoming absorbed in one's mood state, much like the overconcern with physical health experienced by the hypochondriac. The high mood monitor may check on his or her moods often, and be quite vigilant in doing so, yet may still remain a bit confused about the nature of the mood state. Just as the accuracy of the hypochondriac's diagnoses may be clouded by numerous false alarms or uncertainty about the nature of the discomfort, so too may the high mood monitor's judgments of his or her mood be clouded by too great an absorption in the mood state itself. In the case of bad moods, this absorption may produce prolonged negative affect.

Giuliano, T. A. (1995, August). Mood awareness predicts mood change over time. Presented at the 103rd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York.

Swinkels, A. (1993, August). Exploring the role of mood awareness in mood regulation. In D. Tice (Chair), Self regulation of mood and emotion. Symposium conducted at the 101st Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto.

Swinkels, A., & Giuliano, T. A. (1995). The measurement and conceptualization of mood awareness: Monitoring and labeling one's mood states. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 934-949.

Swinkels, A., Giuliano, T. A., & Helweg-Larsen, M. (1996, August). Assessing mood awareness in diverse groups. Presented at the 104th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto.

Swinkels, A., & Giuliano, T. A. (1992a). Mood awareness and self-regulation. Presented at the Fourth Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society, San Diego, California.

Swinkels, A., & Giuliano, T. A. (1992b). [Mood clash: Negotiating interpersonal affect]. Unpublished research data.