I'm reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and I came across the following text:

The Remote Association Test has more to tell us about the link between cognitive ease and positive effect. Briefly consider the two triads of words:

$$\text{sleep mail switch}\\\text{ salt deep foam}$$ You could not know it of course, but measurements of electrical activity in the muscles of your face would probably have shown a slight smile when you read the second trial, which is coherent (sea is the solution). This smiling reaction to coherence appears in subjects who are told nothing about common associates; they are merely shown a vertically arranged triad of words and instructed to press the space bar after they have read it. The impression of cognitive ease that comes with the presentation of a coherent triad appears to be mildly pleasurable in itself. The evidence that we have about good feelings, cognitive ease, and the intuition of coherence is, as scientists say, correlational but not necessarily causal. Cognitive ease and smiling occur together, but do the good feelings actually lead to intuitions of coherence? Yes, they do. The proof comes from a clever experimental approach that has become increasingly popular. Some participants were given a cover story that provided an alternative interpretation for their good feeling: they were told about music played in their earphones that "previous research showed that this music influences the emotional reaction of its individuals". This story completely eliminates the intuition of coherence. The finding shows that the brief emotional response that follows the presentation of a triad of words (pleasant if the triad is coherent, unpleasant otherwise) is actually the basis of judgments of coherence. There is nothing here that system 1 cannot do. Emotional changes are now expected, and because they are unsurprising they are not linked causally to the words.

(Kahneman refers to the automatic and intuitive way of thinking as system 1)

My Question: Why does the adding of the cover story in this experiment show that good feelings lead to intuitions of coherence (that there is a causal relation)? I find this conclusion rather strange. I'm probably mistaken but it seems to me that Kahneman is saying: the fact that there was no intuition of coherence when these participants were expecting to respond emotionally to music, shows that there is a causal relation between the good feelings and the intuition of coherence. Why would this make sense?

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the information about the tests. I really couldn't understand that section in the book. I wish we could see the actual, objective answers or something close to them - what native English speakers would generally agree upon after some thought about which groups of words were coherent and which weren't so that I could compare them to the responses in the graph above. In the book, he basically said that people's instant, intuitive feelings about whether the words could be linked coherently were surprisingly accurate so I would be interested to see the evidence of that. I'm not a psycho $\endgroup$
    – Nathan
    Apr 7, 2018 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ I also found this excerpt quite confusing when I first read it, which led me to different sources of information and websites (this one inclusively), and I may be totally wrong, but from what I understood, when the participants were faced with the task of defining a word triad as coherent or incoherent, after they were aware of the possibility of emotional shift, they were not able to intuitively detect the coherence at first glance, at least not so rapidly, as that brief emotional response that follows the presentation of the triad of words was the basis of the judgement of coherence (the abi $\endgroup$
    – Francisco
    Nov 10, 2020 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


This excerpt refers to an experiment described in Topolinski & Strack (2009) and Topolinski & Strack (2009), and is part of a series of experiments that used a variety of different methods to demonstrate the causal relation between affect and coherence, of which only 1 is described above, so even if it isn't convincing by itself, a lot of additional evidence would need to be questioned to thwart the conclusion.

This particular experiment uses a popular paradigm developed by Schwarz & Clore (1983) (which in turn is based on a previous experiment by Zanna & Cooper (1974); for reviews see Schwarz & Clore (1988), Schwarz & Clore (1996), Schwarz (2012), and Wikipedia), that has been used many times to demonstrate a causal relation between affective experience and intuition or metacognition. The premise behind this experimental paradigm is that once an affective experience is attributed to a particular cause, it is no longer used as information for subsequent judgments. This assumption has been demonstrated in many experiments, but contrast it with Payne et al (2005) and Allen et al (1989) who report that attempts to correct misattribution failed in their studies, suggesting that affective experience information can be reused in some circumstances. Luckily, this latter possibility does not impact the experiment in question.

The authors of this experiment propose a detailed mechanism for how subjects make judgments of coherence: As the word triad is read, the processing fluency (cognitive ease, or the rate that the words are processed) causes an affective response (subtle smiling reaction), that subjects become aware of, and attribute to subsequent intuitive judgments (such as coherence).

This particular experiment tests the hypothesis by manipulating subjects to misattribute the affective response (to background music). Thus, if affect does not inform coherence judgments, then misattributing it to another source should have no effect on results. On the other hand, if affect does cause coherence judgments, then attributing affective response to another cause should eliminate it as a source of information for coherence judgments, resulting in poorer performance. The control group listened to the same music, and was also directed to misattribute something to it, but it was fluency rather than affect.

enter image description here

The results of the experiment indeed demonstrated that once subjects reattribute positive affect to background music, they no longer use it for coherence judgments, and this results in a significant reduction of correct responses, leading to the conclusion that affect is an important indicator (cause) of coherence.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your effort! I was afraid there'd be an explanation like the one you just gave, and I feel a bit uncomfortable. I have to read up on the developed paradigm that you mention, because right now I don't see how this proves a causal relationship. Would you agree that it's very plausible that the music distracts the participants or alters their mood? Earlier in the book Kahneman shows how your mood influences your cognitive performances, so I don't (yet) see how this proves that there isn't just a correlation between the emotions and intuition of coherence. $\endgroup$
    – titusAdam
    Feb 9, 2018 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ No reason to feel uncomfortable, these are very good questions, and critical thinking is crucial for good science. The answer is the control group. Control groups are very important! A second group of subjects (called the control group) was given the exact same task, with the same music playing in the background, and even given a cover story (just a slightly different one). If music had a distracting or mood-altering effect, then it would have affected the control group equally, but it did not. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 9, 2018 at 21:49

I would not be surprised if the testers did do some initial testing and came to the conclusion that knowing what the test was measuring affected the results.

Thus, the music story is just a misdirection layer added to attempt to prevent bias in the measurements because a participant "figured out" what is being measured. If the participant were told to do the exact same thing without some sort of cover story then some, if not many, would figure out what was going on because "figuring out" the purpose of something one is participating in would be a natural tendency. If instead, the testers could get the participant to focus on why is the music important instead of the words then it increases the chance that what is being measured is really the emotional affect of reading the words.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.