ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Boiger, for the past several weeks, we have been asking our readers how they are doing. Over the course of the day, a rather constant 70 percent of respondents say they are doing well. Are you surprised by that?
Michael Boiger: Not really.
ZEIT ONLINE: Why not?
Boiger: We know from studies that people generally aspire to positive emotions. To be more precise: they aspire to a slightly positive state of mind. Apparently, a majority of your readers are able to achieve this goal. One explanation for why we strive for such a state has to do with our physical constitution. Extreme emotions can be exhausting, they require energy. Over time, a slightly positive emotional state is least problematic for people and their environment.
ZEIT ONLINE: Are we able to determine on a fundamental level if we are doing well or not?
Boiger: Usually we are. When we psychologists ask our study subjects to describe their emotional state, we present them with a four-fielded matrix. It shows the arousal level upwards and downwards and it shows how positively or negatively participants rate their mood. Most test subjects can classify their emotional state in this matrix. Whether we are doing well or not is a fundamental dimension of our emotions. Usually, we know pretty precisely.
ZEIT ONLINE: A second step of our online mood reporting tool involves asking readers to describe their emotional state with a single word – an adjective. Is it even possible to describe our emotions with a single word?
Boiger: The question you ask your readers is: How are you doing today? As such, it's not about a spontaneous emotion that suddenly descends on us and which we don't initially comprehend. Rather, it pertains to the description of a fundamental state of being that can develop throughout the day. That requires reader to find a semantic term for their emotional state that can sometimes be ambivalent. It is a challenging task, but also something that most people have learned to do in the course of their lives.
ZEIT ONLINE: Readers have indeed exhibited creativity in doing so. Some have said they feel "marzipany" or "weekend-drunk."
Boiger: (laughs) Yeah, and certainly they aren't always being serious.
ZEIT ONLINE: One other worry we have is: What happens if readers – despite anonymity – only provide answers that they think are socially acceptable?
Boiger: That is a problem we encounter in psychological research as well and we try to preclude it to the degree possible. We are social creatures, and that always plays a role. Some researchers believe that such effects can be eliminated entirely. The idea being that once everything has been removed, the external effects and all the social factors, then the core has been exposed. But I wonder: What have we really exposed? We experience most emotions in society, after all, and not in the laboratory.
ZEIT ONLINE: We have noticed a few peculiarities in readers' answers that we don't completely understand. Can we run a couple of them by you to get your reaction?
Boiger: I can certainly try.
ZEIT ONLINE: At nighttime, between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., the mood tends to sink rapidly. Around 40 percent of users say they aren't doing well in that period.
Boiger: First of all, I would assume that different people vote late at night than during the day – people with insomnia or those who can't sleep due to worries or pain. And nightshift workers. That is a different group with a different set of problems.
ZEIT ONLINE: Your supposition is supported by the words people use in the middle of the night to describe their mood: depressive, sleepless, stressed.
Boiger: There is another factor as well. During the day, social relationships – to friends, partners or colleagues – help us regulate our emotions. If the need arises, we can go grab a coffee together to share our worries. At night, sitting alone and secluded in front of the computer or smartphone, this regulatory effect is missing.