A Whiff Of Cat Fur

11/15/2016 03:04 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2017

When lab technicians put two young rats together, they start to play, pouncing and wrestling each other. The rats, not the lab technicians. According to Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience, we know it's play because of their laughter - rats make measurable 50 kHz chirps when they are excited. The rats' play is a form of experimenting, learning, and practice, as they explore their strength and agility.

Panksepp conducted an experiment in which he assessed rats' play before and after a small tuft of cat fur was placed in their "playroom." The rats' Fear Systems were activated by the feline fur, and their play was completely inhibited. In the four days prior to the car fur, the rats started to play an average of 50 times in the 5-minute sessions. After the cat fur, play dropped to zero. It took three additional days for the rats to play again at all, and levels of play never returned to the pre-fur sessions after 5 days.

These results reveal an inhibiting relationship between the behaviors triggered by positive emotions (excitement) versus the negative emotions (fear). When one system is activated, the other shrinks back. As Panksepp told me, in all species that have been studied, playfulness is inhibited by negative emotions. These results also suggest that once the fear system is triggered it is hard to turn it off. It takes time to re-ignite positive emotions and behaviors.

What about humans, with our higher-order cognitive functions? Do we exhibit the same inhibition between our positive and negative emotions? Consider the dissertation research of Anna Steinhenge, who obtained her Ph.D. from London Business School. Anna looked at people in competitive situations, and whether they tried to succeed through creativity or through cheating.

Anna's research showed that when employees interpret their arousal from a competition as anxiety (triggering their Fear System), they are less likely to select creative behaviors to solve problems, and more likely to be unethical. When people interpret their arousal from a competition with excitement (positive emotions), they are more likely to select creative behaviors to solve problems and less likely to be unethical. One study included 880 middle managers in the UK offices of an international insurance company and two international retail banks. She asked them questions about how excited and anxious they were about the employment policies at their company, such as the bonuses, performance management, and promotions. Then, Anna asked managers to think about the behaviors they use to succeed on their jobs. Some of the responses were creative, such as "Search out new technologies, processes, techniques, and/or product ideas." Other responses were unethical, such as "take credit for your colleague's work." The results showed that when managers felt anxiety about the employment policies, they were significantly more likely to undermine their colleagues. When managers felt excitement about their employment policies, they were significantly more likely to use creativity.

Anna also conducted a field experiment where 821 retail bank managers had to decide how to best assist a customer in scenarios. Anna manipulated the salience of the positive versus negative consequences from the competition, and then randomly assigned each manager to one or the other. In one scenario the manager needed to "present product options to an important client in response to their request for assistance. The bank is approaching year end and you need a big push in order to achieve a top ranking among your colleagues." In the excitement manipulation, the scenario emphasized "you will receive a substantial bonus this month" while the anxiety manipulation stated "you will lose your substantial bonus this month." The managers then selected how they would deal with the client. Some of the options were unethical (Only present the most profitable options), others were creative (Ask the client if they know any other potential clients who would be willing to have a meeting to discuss this product/solution offering).

As expected, managers experienced significantly more anxiety in response to the negatively-framed outcomes, while managers in the positively-framed outcomes experienced more excitement. Even more important, managers' excitement significantly predicted their intentions to engage in creative behaviors, but the more anxious managers felt, the more they intended to engage in unethical behaviors.

Don't Stop Believin'

Which activity provokes anxiety for you?

A) Singing Karaoke
B) Giving a public speech
C) An intense math test where you will be compared to others

One of these probably creates physiological arousal for you, complete with sweaty palms and increased heart rate. But does this arousal help or hurt performance?

Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks showed that the answer depends on whether you activate your positive or negative emotions. In one study, Brooks recruited people to sing in front of a stranger using Nintendo's "Karaoke Revolution." Just before they sang, an experimenter asked, "How are you feeling?" and Brooks randomly assigned some participants to say "I am anxious" while she assigned others to say "I am excited."

People in the excited condition sang much better than the people in the anxious condition. Almost 30% better, jumping from 53% to 81% accuracy. Why? Physiological arousal usually occurs for people who have to sing in front of a stranger. But when the singers welcome this arousal as excitement, they become more playful, optimistic, and creative instead of being encumbered by their fear system. If we can trigger our positive emotions during stressful experiences, it can promote adaptive responses.

But not so quick. After all, singing is one thing, because singing is based on vocal cords and posture, which obviously can be affected by physiological arousal. What about math? Prior to a math test, Brooks told a different group of people they would complete a very difficult IQ test under time pressure. Participants were then randomly-assigned to read a phrase displayed in large letters on their screens: "Try to remain calm" or "Try to get excited."

People in the "get excited" condition performed significantly better on the same math test. Brooks found the same phenomenon in a public speech. Interpreting arousal as excitement made individuals more optimistic, creative, and confident. These positive emotions improve problem solving because people are better able to marshal their cognitive resources to cope with the task at hand, instead of being encumbered by fear, threat, and stress (which shuts down creativity and harms problem solving). Likewise, sports psychology research shows that high arousal experienced as excitement is related to playful, learning oriented behaviors.

If organizations want to inspire creativity, innovation, and peak performance, leaders need to activate people's positive emotions. But when employees get a whiff of bullying, or of being punished for experimenting, just the opposite happens: Fear dominates and human potential is squandered.