5.3 Broaden-and-build theory.

The broaden and build theory of positive emotions [Fredrickson, 1998], and [2005] argues basically the same as this site, but from a completely different starting point, namely the role and function of positive emotions. The really nice point of Fredrickson’s work is that positive emotions and effective learning go hand in hand.

Source: Barbara Fredrickson.

Central to many existing theories of emotion is the concept of specific-action tendencies – the idea that emotions prepare the body both physically and psychologically to act in particular ways. For example, anger creates the urge to attack, fear causes an urge to escape and disgust leads to the urge to expel. From this framework, positive emotions posed a puzzle.

Emotions like joy, serenity and gratitude don’t seem as useful as fear, anger or disgust. The bodily changes, urges to act and the facial expressions produced by positive emotions are not as specific or as obviously relevant to survival as those sparked by negative emotions. If positive emotions didn’t promote our ancestors’ survival in life-threatening situations, then what good were they? How did they survive evolutionary pressures? Did they have any adaptive value at all?

Barbara Fredrickson developed the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions to explain the mechanics of how positive emotions were important to survival. According to the theory, positive emotions expand cognition and behavioral tendencies. Taking issue with the view that all emotions lead to specific action tendencies, the theory argues that positive emotions increase the number of potential behavioral options. Instead, emotions should be cast as leading to changes in “momentary thought-action repertoires” – a range of potential actions the body and mind are prepared to take.

The expanded cognitive flexibility evident during positive emotional states results in resource building that becomes useful over time. Even though a positive emotional state is only momentary, the benefits last in the form of traits, social bonds, and abilities that endure into the future. The implication of this work is that positive emotions have inherent value to human growth and development and cultivation of these emotions will help people lead fuller lives.

The theory holds that in contrast with the benefits of negative emotions—which are direct and immediately adaptive in life-threatening situations—the benefits of broadened thought–action repertoires emerge over time. Specifically, broadened mindsets carry indirect and longterm adaptive value because broadening builds enduring personal resources, like social connections, coping strategies, and environmental knowledge. As an illustration, consider the link between interest and exploration. Research shows that initially positive attitudes—like interest and curiosity—produce more accurate subsequent knowledge than do initially negative attitudes—like boredom and cynicism. Positivity, by prompting approach and exploration, creates experiential learning opportunities that confirm or correct initial expectations. By contrast, because negativity promotes avoidance, opportunities to correct false impressions are passed by. These findings suggest that positive affect—by broadening exploratory behavior in the moment—over time builds more accurate cognitive maps of what is good and bad in the environment. This greater knowledge becomes a lasting personal resource

Although positive affect is transient, the personal resources accrued across moments of positivity are durable. As these resources accumulate, they function as reserves that can be drawn on to manage future threats and increase odds of survival. So experiences of positive affect, although fleeting, can spark dynamic processes with downstream repercussions for growth and resilience.

And from [Fredrickson, 2005]:

The varied good outcomes empirically linked with positive affect support the broaden-and-build theory, which asserts that positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that increased human ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction (Fredrickson, 1998). The theory holds that unlike negative emotions, which narrow people’s behavioral urges toward specific actions that were life-preserving for human ancestors (e.g., fight, flight), positive emotions widen the array of thoughts and actions called forth (e.g., play, explore), facilitating generativity and behavioral flexibility.

The theory holds that in contrast with the benefits of negative emotions—which are direct and immediately adaptive in life-threatening situations—the benefits of broadened thought–action repertoires emerge over time. Specifically, broadened mindsets carry indirect and longterm adaptive value because broadening builds enduring personal resources, like social connections, coping strategies, and environmental knowledge. As an illustration, consider the link between interest and exploration. Research shows that initially positive attitudes—like interest and curiosity—produce more accurate subsequent knowledge than do initially negative attitudes—like boredom and cynicism. Positivity, by prompting approach and exploration, creates experiential learning opportunities that confirm or correct initial expectations. By contrast, because negativity promotes avoidance, opportunities to correct false impressions are passed by (Fazio, Eiser, & Shook, 2004). These findings suggest that positive affect—by broadening exploratory behavior in the moment—over time builds more accurate cognitive maps of what is good and bad in the environment. This greater knowledge becomes a lasting personal resource

Although positive affect is transient, the personal resources accrued across moments of positivity are durable. As these resources accumulate, they function as reserves that can be drawn on to manage future threats and increase odds of survival. So experiences of positive affect, although fleeting, can spark dynamic processes with downstream repercussions for growth and resilience.Whereas traditional perspectives hold that positive affect marks or signals current health and well-being (Diener, 2000; Kahneman, 1999), the broaden-and-build theory goes further to suggest that positive affect also produces future health and well-being (Fredrickson, 2001). Put differently, because the broaden-and-build effects of positive affect accumulate and compound over time, positivity can transform individuals for the better, making them healthier, more socially integrated, knowledgeable, effective, and resilient. Supporting this view, prospective studies by Fredrickson and colleagues have shown that positive affect at initial assessment predicts increases in well-being several weeks later, in part by broadening people’s mindsets (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002) and building their psychological resources (Fredrickson, Brown, Cohn, Conway, & Mikels, 2005). This evidence motivates our prediction that positive affect is a critical ingredient within flourishing mental health.

References:

  • Fredrickson, Barbara L. 1998. “What Good Are Positive Emotions?.” Review of General Psychology 2 (3): 300–319. doi:10.1037/1089–2680.2.3.300.

  • Fredrickson, Barbara L, and Christine Branigan. 2005. “Positive Emotions Broaden the Scope of Attention and Thought‐Action Repertoires.” Cognition & Emotion 19 (3) (March): 313–332. doi:10.1080/02699930441000238.

  • Fredrickson, B., & Losada, M. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist.