People with higher general cognitive ability display distinctive emotional response patterns, characterized by slower and less intense peaks compared to those with lower cognitive ability, according to new research published in the journal Intelligence. In other words, their emotional reactions start more slowly, don’t get as intense, and change more gradually.
General cognitive ability, often referred to as “g-factor” or simply “intelligence,” encompasses a range of cognitive skills like reasoning, problem-solving, abstract thinking, and logical deduction. It is often assessed through various standardized tests such as scholastic achievement tests like the SAT and ACT. General cognitive ability has been shown to be a strong predictor of outcomes both in educational settings (school performance) and the workplace.
The authors behind the new study were interested in understanding how individual differences in cognitive ability might extend to emotional responses and regulation. They aimed to investigate whether individuals with higher cognitive ability exhibit different patterns of emotional reactivity compared to those with lower cognitive ability.
“Being an intellectual by profession, I became curious about the effects of cognitive activity on the emotion system,” explained study author Michael D. Robinson, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “We had also seen some previous results suggesting that people with higher cognitive ability seemed less in tune with their affective reactions. We wanted to apply these ideas to a consideration of the momentary time course of emotional reactions (in the literature, these are called “emotion dynamics”).”
To explore how general cognitive ability might influence emotional processing, the researchers conducted two different studies.
Study 1 consisted of four separate experiments with the primary aim of investigating the relationship between general cognitive ability and emotion dynamics in response to visual stimuli. Participants were recruited from a Midwestern University in the United States and were primarily undergraduate students seeking psychology class credit. The samples consisted of 102, 151, 135, and 119 participants, respectively. The participants’ ages ranged from 15 to 34 years across the studies, with mean ages approximately around 18.8 to 18.95 years.
The experimental setup involved participants completing a Dynamic Affect Reactivity Task (DART), which presented them with emotionally valenced images and asked them to continuously rate their affective reactions using a computer mouse. The DART aimed to capture momentary patterns of affect change, including emotional onsets, peak intensities, and the velocity of affect change. The DART protocol was implemented across the four studies with slight variations in terms of the number of stimuli, timing parameters, and image presentation.
Additionally, participants provided demographic information, completed additional measures including personality traits and tendencies toward socially desirable responding, and reported their ACT scores. The ACT is a standardized test commonly used for college admissions in the United States. It assesses a student’s knowledge and skills in areas like English, math, reading, and science.
The ACT is considered a useful proxy for general intelligence because it’s designed to measure a wide range of cognitive abilities, including reasoning, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. Research has shown that ACT scores are correlated with other measures of cognitive abilities, such as IQ tests.
Study 2 aimed to replicate and extend the findings of Study 1 using a different method of response, specifically button presses, and a different set of emotionally valenced images from the Nencki Affective Picture System (NAPS). Study 2 involved a sample of 124 undergraduate students from the same Midwestern University as in Study 1. The participants’ ages were similar to those in Study 1, with a mean age of approximately 18.73 years.
In both studies, the researchers found that participants with higher cognitive ability (measured via self-reported ACT scores) exhibited distinct patterns in their emotional reactions compared to those with lower cognitive ability. This was true regardless of whether the images evoked positive or negative emotions.
“We were surprised with the consistency of the findings,” Robinson told PsyPost. “In study after study, participants with higher levels of cognitive ability seemed exhibited weaker or less robust emotional reactions.”
Those with higher cognitive ability displayed slower peaks in their emotional reactions. This means that their emotions reached their highest intensity more gradually compared to individuals with lower cognitive ability.
In addition, the peaks of emotional reactions for participants with higher cognitive ability were less intense. Their emotional responses did not reach as high of an intensity level as those of individuals with lower cognitive ability.
Lastly, participants with higher cognitive ability had velocities of affect change (the rate at which their emotions changed from onset to peak) that were less pronounced. Their emotional shifts from the initial onset to the peak were more gradual, suggesting a more controlled and moderated emotional response.
“People with higher levels of cognitive ability (or general intelligence) exhibited emotional reactions that were delayed or slower than people with lower levels of cognitive ability did,” Robinson told PsyPost. “We speculate that certain forms of intellectual activity obscure or confuse more spontaneous emotional processes. That is, intelligent people may ‘over-think’ their feelings, losing touch with the more emotion-related aspects of their lives. Conversely, people with less cognitive ability may be more spontaneous and in tune with their emotions, at least on average.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. For example, the studies were conducted with undergraduate students from a single university, which may limit the generalizability of the findings. The studies also relied on self-reported ACT scores as a proxy for general cognitive ability. Other cognitive ability measures might provide more accurate results.
“In our studies, people self-reported their ACT scores,” Robinson explained. “Cognitive ability could be assessed more extensively, ideally through the use of a battery of measures known to be g-loaded. It would also be interesting to delve more into the personality-emotion literature. For example, our findings suggest that people with higher cognitive ability may have weaker approach and avoidance reactivity systems or they may typically score lower in certain components of personality traits like extraversion and neuroticism. This cognitive ability-personality interface seems to deserve further investigation.”
“This research was a collaborative effort and Roberta Irvin and Robert Klein were particularly helpful with all stages of the project,” he added.
The study, “General cognitive ability, as assessed by self-reported ACT scores, is associated with reduced emotional responding: Evidence from a Dynamic Affect Reactivity Task“, was authored by Michael D. Robinson, Roberta L. Irvin, Todd A. Pringle, and Robert J. Klein.