We humans love experiencing positive things. Whether it’s receiving gifts, achieving a desired outcome, or simply getting compliments, we tend to remember the positive events for a long time.
For some time now, there is a line of research being conducted into a psychological concept called the ‘Pollyanna Principle‘, which aims to explain our tendency to remember the positives of life.
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The Pollyanna Principle was named after ‘Pollyanna‘, a novel by Eleanor Porter. “Pollyanna” soon became the common label for optimists. A Pollyanna is described as someone who remembers only happy events, believes everyone in the world is completely beautiful, and looks on the bright side of everything, including misfortune.
In 1969, Bouscher and Osgood came up with ‘The Pollyanna Hypothesis‘. This hypothesis stated that humans tend to use positive words more frequently than negative words during the communication process. This research was done in a wide variety of languages. Nevertheless, Matlin and Stang thought that the Pollyanna hypothesis was pervasive so they decided to upgrade it to the Pollyanna Principle.
According to Matlin, the Pollyanna Principle states that pleasantness predominates. He said:
“we typically process pleasant items more accurately and efficiently than unpleasant or neutral items, and we tend to make positive judgements about a wide variety of people, events, situations, and objects.”
This means our brains process and handle positive information better compared to unpleasant information. We also tend to remember past experiences more favourable than they actually were.
Pollyana Principle and Memory
In 1991, Skowronski, Betz, Thompson, and Shannon performed a research on undergraduate psychology students and their daily experiences. The results showed that students recalled pleasant events more accurately than unpleasant ones. The researchers also have enough support to prove that the students recalled extremely pleasant or extremely unpleasant events more accurately when compared to more neutral events.
As a component of the Pollyanna Principle, our memories, whether they are pleasant or not, tend to grow more positive over time.
A research study done by Walker, Volg, and Thompson has proven this phenomenon. The results stated that the research participants rated unpleasant events to be substantially more pleasant, whereas the pleasant events were considered to be slightly less pleasant. The change in unpleasantness rating was significantly larger comparing to the change in pleasantness rating.
Pollyanna Principle and Judgement
Another component of the Pollyanna Principle is that we have a tendency to believe our lives are pleasant in general. Multiple researches have been done on this area. The majority of middle-aged university-educated women were reported to have positive expectations about their future.
Positive psychology researchers also examined different variables and their relations to happiness and well-being. With respect to age, it was assumed that elder women would rate their happiness pretty low, since they are likely to experience loneliness, poor health and poverty.
However, Neil and Kahn found that elderly widows gave their life satisfaction a rating of 19 on average on a scale from 0 to 26. This means that on average, elderly widows are relatively happy with their lives. This can be explained by several factors. One of the reasons is probably because they have learned to cope with negative emotions.
Another interesting theory to take into account is the Hedonic Treadmill, which explains the concept of what’s called ‘hedonic adaptation’.
Lake Wobegon Effect
Lake Wobegon effect is defined as the human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others.
The term is named after a fictional small town in rural Minnesota. This town was mentioned in several monologues on a public radio program broadcast in the United States and Canada. Each time, the host ends his monologue with the sentence “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Research proves this theory and it showed that when people compare themselves with their peers, they fixated egocentrically on their own skills and don’t take into account the skills of others. The results also suggest the human tendency to see oneself as above average maybe not be as universal as it was once thought.
We all try to look for good things in bad situations. A deadly disease or a devastating tragedy can lead people to become more appreciative and bring them closer with their families and loved ones. Over time, we tend to focus on the good things and believe that our lives are more pleasant in general. As humans we also have the inclination to rate ourselves better than others, but this concept is not universal.
For further exploration…
You can watch Hildy Gottlieb talk more about the Pollyanna Principle by watching the following playlist on Youtube:
Boucher, J., & Osgood, C. (1969). The pollyanna hypothesis. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 8(1), 1-8.
Kruger, J. (1999). Lake Wobegon Be Gone! The "below-average Effect" And The Egocentric Nature Of Comparative Ability Judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(2), 221-232.
Matlin, M. W. (2004). Pollyanna Principle. In P. Rüdiger. Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory (pp. 255-272) Psychology Press.