To find out whether people chose the room simply because it was associated with more positive feelings, Savani also examined his participants’ beliefs in emotional residue. He discovered that people who were more likely to believe in emotional residue were also more likely to choose the room with the happy sign. Therefore, beliefs in emotional residue, and not general positivity, seemed to be driving his results.
In India, people often burn incense to clear out emotional residue. Americans may engage in similar rituals in their attempts to get rid of “bad energy.” Such rituals could include anything from keeping windows open, to saying prayers, to aromatherapy. An article published in the New York Times earlier this year profiled a feng shui expert who, for a fee, helps new apartment dwellers clear out the negative energy accumulated by previous tenants.
Beliefs in emotional residue have some interesting implications for behavior. For example, might people be willing to pay less for a home or office after being told that the previous occupants experienced a lot of negative emotions there? Might someone choose a less beautiful home over a more beautiful one, if the less beautiful house was thought to have less emotional residue? The answer to these questions may depend on how long people believe that emotional residue tends to hang around.
The question of whether emotional residue actually exists remains to be answered, but intriguing new research suggests that it may have biological underpinnings. A well-publicized study from earlier this year demonstrated that human tears emit a chemical that other people detect and respond to. Specifically, women’s tears were shown to reduce testosterone and sexual arousal in men. Research by Wen Zhou and Denise Chen of Rice University have demonstrated that human sweat glands emit distinct chemicals when people experience different emotions. In addition, they showed evidence that other people can sense those chemicals at a later point in time. Taken together, these new findings suggest that our intuitive beliefs in emotional residue may be more than just superstition.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.