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The Positive Side of Negative EmotionsReview - The Positive Side of Negative Emotions
by W. Gerrod Parrott
The Guilford Pres, 2014
Review by Roy Sugarman PhD
Feb 24th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 9)

As Parrott is quick to point out, life without negative emotions is an unlikely event, as much as, say, expecting clear skies each day. We are hardwired to protect ourselves from danger and so negative emotions may be necessary, although negativity, as Beck put it, might mean that we filter out all of the positive and focus only on perceived threats.

So how is there a bright side to the negative emotion? It seems it is necessary.  There are both negative and positive emotions, easy to list, but what actually makes one emotion one or the other is not exactly stipulated.  So the author sets out to use contemporary literature to demonstrate the value of negative emotions, or perhaps just the utility of them.

To begin, we examine the specific emotions. Various authors add their views: to start, Forgas examines the question if sadness can be good for you, in the cognitive, motivational and interpersonal domains. Strangely and topically, during one experiment, what appeared to be a Muslim target received more hits from positive, rather than negatively biased shooters. Negative mood may influence effort, and thus motivation, perseverance, reduces self-handicapping, and sad mood may make you a kinder, nicer person with higher rates of interpersonal fairness.

Anxiety is as I noted above, part of the adaptive strategy support of negative emotions. Perkins and Corr examine this, and notes for instance that an interaction between negativity (neuroticism) and intelligence predicted adaptation, in some studies they quote related to conscriptees in the military.  Anxiety is also shown to boost performance in intellectually demanding desk-based activities as well. The more physically dangerous however, the more the impact of anxiety on performance, until extreme danger is reached, as with bomb disposal or flying military machines.

Ursula Hess embarks on showing us that anger is, or can be anyway, a positive emotion., mobilizing energy and focusing attention, especially to write a perceived wrong, perhaps as a sign of strength.

Negative social emotions may have positive consequences, examining embarrassment, shame, guilt, jealousy and envy in the hands of Henniger and Harris. In an analogy to pain, in social settings, this may be useful to us, to avoid further damage or discomfort, with personal and social benefits. Hunger and thirst are both key to survival, and so may these emotions be argued to have payoffs, even if we would choose to not have them, if we could. Perceived threat ratings here may make a big impact even if not objectively that threatening in reality. This book is of course setting out to influence how we perceive emotions that might otherwise be weighted as negative.

Could these emotions benefit close relationships? To answer this, Baker, McNulty and Overall set up for instance the idea that suggest that when problems arise in a relationship, greater awareness will accompany negative appraisal, as opposed to a Pollyanna view where nothing is perceived as wrong: otherwise, bad things come out of the blue. In the same ways negative emotions are communication for important things, such as the need for support to be elicited from the viewer. This could involve a situation that needs to be rectified, and thus works as a sort of feedback that things need to change. Obviously, being constantly happy as a deliberate ploy is misleading and in contrast, leads to passive aggressive engagement with others.

Van Kleef and Cote continue on the social influence of negative emotions.  Sadness is an attempt to elicit behavior that is supportive, anger to generate actions that are likewise supportive, but avoiding conflict perhaps, rather than helping: emotions have a social influence value. Being disappointed when you can't elicit a donation or favor from another. So negative emotions can elicit social support, or concessions in negotiations in various settings.  We know that leaders can use strong emotional expressivity to elicit changed behavior in the electorate. Viz. Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill and others, based certainly on their observations of their electorates expressed emotions too. Hitler and Mussolini sought conformity of one sort, Churchill of another, namely aggression in the first part in seeking total war, or resistance in the second part, seeking resilience in the face of danger. This chapter, and to a certain extent others, challenge the label of negative and positive valence, with unique appraisal patterns and action tendencies, unique to each emotion.

On the receiving end of emotions, social conventions such as those provided by culture, may constrain what we listen for and hear. Chentsova-Dutton, Senft and Ryder put it forward that different people in different cultural contexts hear different things when perceiving their own emotions or those of others.  Emotions are thus not just that, but may mean something more unpleasant in some cultures, such as the desirability of feeling bad, and assumptions about negative emotions are not necessarily universal. Culture in this sense is intersubjective agreement about these things. This would shift the bar on how dysfunctional we should see negative emotions as being, as this is not written in stone.  These authors will argue that culture and biology are intertwined, not absolutes or discreet in themselves. Sorrow may thus be a gateway to spiritual introspection.

Staying with culture, the Confucian tradition also has something to contribute. As opposed to western culture, Chinese views of the world may see emotion as giving insight into the real or true nature of the individual.

So can one consider emotion to be desirable even when it is negative?  Tamir and Bigman investigate why we might want to feel bad. Their idea focusses on self-regulation, our desire to avoid pain and seek reward. However, this doesn't quite cover the gamut of our behaviors as a simplification certainly. Motives may be more complex than hedonic parameters, and so they establish a taxonomy, to make the point of contra-hedonic motivation.

Oliver, Bartsch and Hartmann have a look at what we might consider entertainment, which of course includes the vicarious enjoyment of watching emotional moments captured in the media, specifically in entertainment: we all enjoy a tragedy after all.  However, simplistic explanations are eschewed as the authors examine the theory, as well as the need to move beyond the concept of enjoyment, to more rewarding activities such as those that provoke thought or other emotions than sadness and empathy and rather more the meanings we bring to bear.

All behavioral experts rely on the ability to measure, and Norem examines finding the right tool for the job. In this case, Julie Norem refers to functional analysis as related to defensive pessimism.

In case you were wondering what happened to the editor, he has contributed, the last of the twelve chapters, entitled "Feeling, Function, and the place of Negative Emotions in a Happy Life". Here, he pulls together the collective knowledge and still challenges that Western traditions value the positive emotions as contributory and devalues the negative, ignoring perhaps as he implies that we ignore the curvilinear relationship between success and negativity, namely that it's not an all or nothing, and that some negativity is healthy. Often this distinction between negative emotion as a singular entity and neurosis, aka. Negative bias as a source of negativity-illness, namely always interpreting things in terms of their negative valence, are different things. Negative emotions have value, as do positive, depending on the context and other circumstances. The confusion between emotions and feelings, namely the former as physiological states and the latter as perceived states, is of interest to me as much as Parrott, and of course Damasio in his 'feeling of what happens" as opposed to Descartes' cogito. If emotions are adaptive, then negative ones have their day in our collective court. Anger in the obstruction of goals, sadness as a tool providing clarity as to how the world is, rather than a Pollyanna view of a just world, embarrassment can attract others to us in nicer ways than arrogance, and anyone observing the open verbal sparring without violence that occurs in Mediterranean buses, will understand the influence of culture depending on the frequency or sparseness of the expression of that emotion in a culture.  Conversely there may be a downside to positive emotions.

So with some functional sadness we come to the end of this book, or rather series of chapters around various aspects of the functionality of negative emotions.  I can't recall any similar work, and with the avalanche of works on the science of Positivity, this is a breath of fresh air.  As Facebook demonstrates with a tide of positively valanced selfies, that leave the world of viewers believing everyone else is enjoying the absolute fruits of a benevolent universe.  Emotions mean different things in different settings, neither resolutely positive or negative in an absolute sense.  Each of these authors has a bit of the elephant, in the wise Indian men and the elephant metaphor, which Parrott has arranged and commented upon to demonstrate the possible whole.  This is a great start to an emerging collection to which I hope Parrott will continue to evolve in future volumes.

 

© 2015 Roy Sugarman

 

Roy Sugarman PhD, Director Applied Neuroscience, EXOS Arizona, USA.

 


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