January 6, 2022

The Influence of Emotions on Learning

by Jonathan Newbaker, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Mississippi Medical Center

In ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt, the author introduces the concept of the elephant and the rider.1 In this analogy, the rider is our logical, reasoning self and the elephant is our reactive, emotional self. His point is that the rider, our reasoning, seems to guide our emotions and decision; however, the reality appears to be the opposite. Haidt argues that our intuition and emotions have a much larger subliminal impact on our decision-making than we are consciously aware. Emotion management, other than perhaps recommendations to seek counseling when needed, is not commonly discussed in the academic setting. Given the impact that emotions can have on logic and reason, it’s a topic worth exploring as recent studies are showing emotions are a driving force in information collection and strongly influences memory. In this essay, I will explore a definition of emotions, the correlation of emotions to learning, and some data on how the two intersect. In addition, the application of these findings will be discussed for health profession educators to consider when teaching.

Emotions can be considered a distinct form of cognition in that they are often the first process to occur in a situation before logical reasoning.2 These feelings can be defined in terms of their valence and arousal.3 The valence of emotions, a term borrowed from the fields of physics and chemistry, describes them as positive or negative.3 The term arousal refers to how activating or deactivating the emotions are.3 Activating emotions energize us, whereas deactivating emotions lead to a loss of energy.3 These various combinations of valence and arousal are displayed in the table below. 


Valence – Positive

Valence – Negative

Arousal – Activating

Excitement, joy

Anxiety, fear

Arousal - Deactivating

Contentment, calmness

Depression, shame

Activated and deactivated states as well as positive and negative emotions can predispose students to particular methods of processing and applying information.3  One study compared emotions (positive or negative) to the students’ information processing method (global processing or local processing).4 To induce the emotional state, the researchers had the students watch either a positive or negative emotionally evocative video or an emotionally neutral video (control). After viewing the video, students were asked to compare three geometric figures. The control figure was a triangular-shaped arrangement of three circles. This was to be contrasted to comparison item 1, a triangular assortment of three cubes, and to comparison item 2, a rectangular assortment of circles. When a student uses global processing, they will pick up on the triangular assortment of the differing shapes (i.e., triangular circles to triangular squares), whereas when a student uses local processing they will pick up on the presence of the same shapes in a different arrangement (i.e., triangular circles to rectangular circles).4 The results showed that students with positive emotional states were more likely to employ global processing than students who were shown the negative or neutral videos. The latter two groups had a stronger tendency to focus on specific details using local processing. Using two emotionally positive videos, one emotionally neutral video, and two emotionally negative videos, the researchers then tested for group differences in global bias scores using a 5 × 2 × 2 ANOVA (Video Group × Sex × Ethnicity). The video type was the only factor that had a significant effect (p = 0.042).4 The two positive emotion videos produced significantly greater global bias scores than the two negative emotion films (p = 0.035).4 In contrast, the global bias scores for the two negative clips did not differ from each other.4 The results suggest that various emotionally-charged delivery methods may change the way learners perceive and process information.

Unfortunately, the conclusion is not so straight forward and we cannot conclude that “positive emotions lead to improved processing and recall”. For example, some research shows that negative events are more likely to be spontaneously remembered than positive events.5 Researchers of one study analyzed involuntary memories in groups of traumatized subjects and contrasted these with involuntary memories among subjects who had an overwhelmingly happy experience. They found that the vividness of trauma-related memories was more significant than non-trauma memories (p < 0.005).5 Of note, the mean number of trauma flashbacks was lower than the mean number of non-traumatic flashbacks (p < 0.01), with happy memories being the most abundant.5 This data indicates that, although trauma is not a prerequisite for memory recall, it does play an important role in the amount of detail that one is able to recall. To tie this into learning, some negative experiences may have beneficial long-term effects and prompt behavior changes.  Therefore, mistakes which provoke negative emotions can be beneficial but students need to be taught how to view these events as opportunities for improvement rather than solely negative events.

The difficulty in providing standardized emotional experiences for students is that they are unique individuals and their emotional response to situations are different. It is possible that one student may feel positive emotions during an encounter with a professor and another student is offput by the same encounter. Therefore, feedback from both the educator and the learner should be incorporated at multiple points throughout a given semester to assess the students’ perspective and emotional state. In addition, this would afford the educator an opportunity to encourage the student to identify and manage any deactivating emotions.

It is clear that emotions play a significant role in how students perceive and remember information.  Thus, instruction techniques and methods for questioning students should consider the emotions they might evoke and the desired educational outcome. For example, playing a video that evokes excitement or joy might be great when global processing is preferred. However, when attention to detail is ideal, the educator could consider creating an environment that fosters a negative emotional state such as providing a grave clinical situation (or simulation) that drives the students towards local processing. Moreover, the educator should emphasize the importance of learning from mistakes which evoke negative, activating emotions. Negative events such getting a “bad grade” or making an ill-conceived recommendation during patient care rounds can leave a last impression on a student but, if managed by the teacher well, they can be “teachable moments” that motivate learning and behavior change. However, if handled poorly, these negative events can be demotivating, causing students to withdraw and avoid.

Lastly, it is important to gather feedback (either formally or informally) at regular intervals to assess the learners’ emotional states. Watch for non-verbal clues!  This should be considered along with formal assessments of student performance. Individuals will process the same experience in different ways, so it is critically important for health professions educators to pay attention to emotional clues and “check in” with students.



  1. Haidt J. The Righteous Mind. New York City, NY: Vintage; 2012.
  2. Zajonc, R. B. Emotions. The handbook of social psychology. McGraw-Hill. 1998. P. 591–632.
  3. McConnell MM, Eva KW. The Role of Emotion in the Learning and Transfer of Clinical Skills and Knowledge. Academic Medicine 2012; 87 (10): 1316–1322.
  4. Fredrickson BL, Branigan C. Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoiresCogn Emot 2005;19(3):313-332.
  5. Berntsen D. Involuntary Memories of Emotional Events: Do Memories of Traumas and Extremely Happy Events Differ? Appl Cognit Psychol 2001;15(7): P. S135–S158.

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