– Jim Morrison
For most of us, familiar surroundings are comforting. Familiar places and faces offer a sense of stability in the maelstrom of everyday life. This seems especially true when we’re going through hard times; perhaps any port in the storm will suffice, but the one you know best is doubtless the one you’d rather find.
But does familiarity hold the same value if we’re feeling on top of the world? In other words, does the warm glow of what we know always stay strong despite our mood?
A research report in the journal Psychological Science suggests that the warmth of familiarity intensifies or lowers depending on the emotional state-of-mind we bring to it.
In a series of experiments, researchers compared participant reactions to familiarity under happy, sad, and neutral mood conditions. In the first experiment, they found that under general conditions, when the mood variable was not manipulated one way or another, people prefered familiarity. But following experiments showed that sad participants strongly preferred familiarity over the neutral condition (indicated in both self-reports and facial electromyography – EMG). Happiness, however, eliminated this preference.
It’s worth noting that happiness did not in any way reduce the level of familiarity – it simply reduced its value (decreased the “warmth of its glow”).
This finding is significant because it challenges a long-held assumption that familiarity and positivity are intractably linked. Instead, it seems that our mood “tunes” our reaction to familiarity. Another way this works is seen in reactions to safe and unsafe environments. If our mood signals an unsafe environment, familiarity is positive. If our mood signals a safe environment, familiarity loses its “glow.”
It’s tempting to pull another conclusion from this study – that happiness boosts an “exploration effect” by which we seek the unfamiliar (or you could say, seek the “warm glow of novelty”). While this study hints at this, there’s not enough evidence yet to fully bear it out.
A practical takeaway from this study is that we’re all liable to take for granted the familiar people and things in our lives when we’re feeling good. But our usual assumption that this has something to do with those people or things is off base. It’s not them but us that changes how warmly they glow. And when times get tough, it should come as no surprise that their warmth suddenly feels indispensable, like the only fire keeping us from dying in the cold.
de Vries, M., Holland, R., Chenier, T., Starr, M., & Winkielman, P. (2010). Happiness Cools the Warm Glow of Familiarity: Psychophysiological Evidence That Mood Modulates the Familiarity-Affect Link Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359878