Solving interpersonal problems when fatigued: The beneficial effect of positive mood
Donna Webster Nelson (Winthrop University), 2018, 46, 1489–1498.

Have you ever felt mentally fatigued after a busy day at work with limited energy and patience to take on other people’s problems? We experience mental fatigue after completing tasks that require high self-control, cognitive load, and emotion regulation, all of which deplete self-regulatory resources needed for future problem-solving tasks. Baumeister and colleagues named this process “ego-depletion” and found consistent and robust evidence for it, including the negative impact of emotion suppression on perseverance with a difficult anagram task (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). Fortunately, experiences of positive emotion and elevated mood help to replenish our depleted self-regulatory resources (Tice, Baumeister, Shmueli, & Muraven, 2007); however, previous research explored only how positive emotion replenishes cognitive flexibility and improves self-control after ego-depletion. Whether positive emotions can restore self-regulatory resources required for social problem solving, perspective-taking, and empathy remained unclear.

Therefore, Nelson (2018) investigated whether the ability to solve social problems reduces as a function of mental fatigue, but recovers when one experiences positive emotion. In a between-subjects design, 125 participants (87 female) completed a reading comprehension task under either a low or high mental fatigue condition1. In a subsequent task, they were asked to read a list of either positive or neutral statements (a mood induction procedure), before completing the Means-End Problem Solving Test (MEPS). In this test, participants read about negative social incidents involving a protagonist and were instructed to outline the steps the protagonist should take to resolve each problem and reach a successful outcome. The results revealed significant interactions of mental fatigue and mood induction on MEPS measures. Specifically, participants who were mentally fatigued generated fewer relevant steps and less effective solutions to solve problems compared to participants who were not mentally fatigued, but only if they were in the neutral mood condition. In contrast, participants in the positive mood condition who were mentally fatigued were similarly effective at problem solving as those who were not mentally fatigued. Thus, positive emotion replenishes self-regulatory resources after mental fatigue, and recovers one’s ability to form adaptive steps to solving social problems. 
This study has important implications for how we can draw on positive experiences to recover from mental fatigue encountered in the workforce and still have energy for post-work social interactions. These findings should be particularly encouraging for people who work in customer service jobs and frequently suppress their true opinions (i.e., surface acting). Furthermore, Nelson (2018) also explains that positive emotions may reduce inflexible thinking tendencies in individuals with depression, which requires further exploration.

1 The high mental fatigue condition involved not only reading and answering questions based on the passages provided, but simultaneously editing the passages for typographical errors.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252-1265.

Tice, D. M., Baumeister, R. F., Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2007). Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 379-384.

Helen Owen, PhD | Associate Editor
Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal