Do Positive Spontaneous Thoughts Function as Incentive Salience?

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Abstract

The present work explores the theoretical relationship between positive spontaneous thoughts and incentive salience—a psychological property thought to energize wanting and approach motivation by rendering cues that are associated with enjoyment more likely to stand out to the individual when subsequently encountered in the environment (Berridge, 2007). We reasoned that positive spontaneous thoughts may at least be concomitants of incentive salience, and as such, they might likewise mediate the effect of liking on wanting. In Study 1, 103 adults recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk reported on key aspects of 10 everyday activities. As predicted, positive spontaneous thoughts mediated the relationship between liking an activity in the past and wanting to engage in it in the future. In Study 2, 99 undergraduate students viewed amusing and humorless cartoons and completed a thought-listing task, providing experimental evidence for the causal effect of liking on positive spontaneous thoughts. In Study 3, we tested whether positive spontaneous thoughts play an active role in energizing wanting rather than merely co-occurring with (inferred) incentive salience. In that experiment involving 80 undergraduates, participants who were led to believe that their spontaneous thoughts about a target activity were especially positive planned to devote more time to that activity over the coming week than participants who received no such information about their spontaneous thoughts. Collectively, these findings suggest that positive spontaneous thoughts may play an important role in shaping approach motivation. Broader implications and future directions in the study of positive spontaneous thoughts are discussed.

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