Paper Summary

Direct link:

Task Order Matters: Emotional and Physiological Reactions to Difficult Tasks

Sun, April 19, 8:15 to 9:45am, Virtual Room


Theoretical Background
Emotions and their accompanying physiological reactions might vary as a function of task difficulty. According to control-value theory (Pekrun, 2006), difficult tasks are associated with lower perceived control than easy tasks and therefore associated with more negative emotions. Empirical evidence on theories of stress and arousal similarly suggests that solving difficult tasks is reflected in stronger physiological reactions (i.e., higher electrodermal activity, EDA) as indicators of activation and stress (Fritz et al., 2014; Healy & Picard, 2005). However, this differential effect of easy versus difficult tasks on emotions and physiological reactions may depend on the order in which these tasks are administered by the teacher. Intuitively, administering the easy task first might alleviate negative emotional responses to the difficult task (e.g., by building up an initially positive experience) but evidence about this assumption is lacking. Thus, the current study examined differences in emotional reactions and EDA while students were working on an easy compared to a difficult mathematics task in counter-balanced order: half of the students started with the difficult task (D-first) and the other half ended with the difficult task (D-last).

Data from N=211 German 8th graders was collected during a mathematics test which consisted of two 20-minute task-blocks: one easy and one difficult. Each student completed both task-blocks but the order (difficult first or last) was counter-balanced between students. Emotions were assessed after each task-block with single-item state-questionnaires (joy, pride, boredom, anger, anxiety; Pekrun et al., 2011). Furthermore, perceived arousal, dominance, and valence were assessed using self-assessment manikins (Bradley & Lang, 1994). EDA was continuously recorded with Empatica wristbands and as a measure of physiological arousal the number of nonspecific skin-conductance responses was extracted for each task-block using Continuous Decomposition Analysis (Benedek & Kaernbach, 2010).

As an initial step, paired t-tests were conducted comparing emotions, arousal, dominance, valence and EDA in easy versus difficult tasks separate for the two groups (D-first versus D-last) to see whether the emotional reactions to difficult tasks vary depending on the order of task administration. Preliminary results (see Table 1) from a subsample of N=56 students show that in both groups the difficult task was associated with significantly more perceived overchallenge which indicates that our manipulation was successful. In the D-last group, there were no significant differences between easy and difficult task regarding the emotions, arousal, dominance, and valence as well as no significant difference in EDA. The D-first group, however, experienced significantly more anger, higher perceived arousal, less dominance and lower valence during the difficult task. Other emotions did not reach significance but EDA tended to be higher in the easy task, which could be explained by high physiological reactions from the difficult task continuing on into the easy task and reaching their maximum there.

Our initial results indicate that the intensity of students’ emotions and physiological reactions during difficult tasks depend on task order, that is, whether or not an easy task had been administered before. Teachers should therefore present easy tasks before introducing difficult tasks.