The broaden-and build-theory could be defined as a model for explaining the mechanisms behind positive emotions in our minds and bodies, what their effects are, what the evolutionary reason is behind them and why studying them is so important for our well-being.
Studying emotions has always been a challenge. There are different points of view as to what is considered an emotion.
General consensus now points to them being “multicomponent response tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans” (Fredrickson, 2001).
Models based on this perspective have usually studied emotions like fear, anger, disgust (i.e. negative emotions), leaving the whole array of positive emotions unattended.
Why? Fredrickson (1998) has pointed out some of the reasons:
- They are a few and less differentiated than negative emotions. Mainly, they all have similar facial patterns, little or no autonomic response, and recalling is often undifferentiated (meaning, it’s hard for someone to remember if they felt joy, contentment, pride, etc.).
- The problem-focused approach (which has characterized Psychology for years). Since they don’t arise when there are problems, they’re not studied when needing a solution.
- Models built on prototypes. Finally, positive emotions have been left aside because they don’t exactly fit the model where they serve as a signal for a specific action tendency.
Positive emotions are a key component in happiness (or subjective well-being, as Myers and Diener in 1995 put it). This raised some questions in B.Fredrickson’s mind, mainly “How?” How do positive emotions contribute to happiness? If they don’t fit the model of emotions it would be understandable not to invest resources into them. So, why do we feel them? Why, after centuries, haven’t we lost the ability to experience positive emotions? Let’s take a closer look.
Fredrickson, in her 1998 article, started to look into some positive emotions. For instance, she realized that Joy is an emotion that’s often experienced while playing, and that it leads to approaching behavior. Also, through play, kids build important physical, intellectual and social abilities. Interest stimulates exploration, which is the base for knowledge and personal growth. Feeling Contentment allows for people to expand their world view and the view of themselves, which later leads to building better social relations and skills. Love could be defined as a combination of these three emotions, and in close relationships, it promotes cycles where all of these can be experienced.
This author realized that the positive emotions she studied shared a pattern, and it was different from the one that was elicited by negative emotions.
“Broaden-and-build theory is notable for drawing explicit attention to the positive and showing that insights result when we do something more than simply look at the absence of the negative.”
Looking with the wrong lens…
Negative emotions lead to specific action tendencies, and thus, have an effect of narrowing what Fredrickson calls the momentary thought-action repertoire. This is why, when we are feeling fear, for example, we tend to focus our attention on getting rid of the menace or fleeing the scene (a.k.a. the fight or flight response). It has been an adaptive evolutionary response.
But positive emotions don’t emerge on menacing situations, they occur when we’re out of them. Does this mean there is no evolutionary reason for them? Definitely not. Fredrickson came to the conclusion that we had been looking at positive emotions with the wrong lens. They work in a different way.
Broadening and Building
She hypothesized that positive emotions have a broadening effect on the momentary thought-action repertoire, discarding automatic responses and looking for creative, flexible and unpredictable new ways of thinking and acting. That’s the broadening part of the theory. So what do we build? By broadening our perspectives and actions, we tend to build important and lasting physical, intellectual, psychological and social resources that, across history, may have contributed to our ancestors’ survival.
In Fredrickson’s 2001 and 2004 articles there’s a review of different experiments that can be considered as empirical support for the broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Some of them have to do with a broadening effect on attention and a more global visual processing, some with a more creative cognitive processing, including making more connections and creating more inclusive categories.
Some of the implications of the broaden-and-build theory are that positive emotions may have an undoing effect on the residue of negative emotions. This means, for instance, that when your heart rate rises after experiencing a negative emotion, you bounce back to a calmer pace when experiencing a positive emotion, instead of a neutral or negative one. This could also mean that positive emotions have an effect on protecting health, wellbeing and in leading a meaningful life.
“The psychological broadening sparked by one positive emotion can increase an individual’s receptiveness to subsequent pleasant or meaningful events, increasing the odds that the individual will find positive meaning in these subsequent events and experience additional positive emotions” (Fredrickson, 2000, p.16).
Taking into account all of the positive effects, I guess a more important question (now) could be How can we experience more positive emotions?
Let’s see if Barbara Fredrickson can answer that question for us:
You might also like to watch Barbara Fredrickson’s: Positive Emotions Transform Us.
Isen, AM. (2001). An Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making in Complex Situations: Theoretical Issues With Practical Implications. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11(2), 75–85
Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological Science, 6, 10-19.
Ekman, P. (1999). Basic Emotions. In Dalgleish, T. & Power, M. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (pp. 45-60). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., & Keltner, D. (2003). The faces of positive emotion: Prototype displays of awe, amusement, and pride. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1000, 296-299.
Fredrickson, B. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Fredrickson, B. (2000). Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and wellbeing. Prevention and Treatment, 3.
Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in Positive Psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist. 56(3): 218–226.
Fredrickson, B. (2004). The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B. 359, 1367–1377
Fredrickson, B and Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.