Blog #44 – The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions
Barbara Fredrickson is one of the most well-known psychologists currently active in the field of well-being-related research.
The United States-based university professor is concerned first and foremost with positive emotions, and perhaps her most notable contribution to knowledge in the area is the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.
This theory, first proposed and published in the late 1990s and subsequently refined, examines the relationship between high levels of subjective well-being and optimal performance in the various spheres of day-to-day life.
To the extent that such matters are discussed in general life, there tends to be a default assumption that the relationship between well-being and performance runs in a straight line and is one of cause and effect, i.e., if you’re feeling better about yourself, then you will be more effective in the workplace and in your personal life.
There is certainly an abundance of evidence to support this idea, but this may only be a part of the picture. In developing her theory, Fredrickson investigated to what extent there may be a feedback loop at work here, i.e., that it is not merely that higher levels of well-being facilitate improved performance, but that improved performance, in turn, facilitates further boosts to individual well-being. The idea that happiness, well-being, and optimal performance are inextricably linked, as opposed to having a more linear, cause-and-effect relationships, goes to the heart of what Fredrickson proposes in the broaden-and-build theory.
She suggests that the experience of a wide range of positive emotions has the effect of broadening individual awareness and then serves to encourage novel and varied forms of thought and action. She also proposes that over time this tendency can have the effect of helping to build durable skills and resources, with positive implications for coping arising from that. Ultimately, she suggests that not only do positive emotions signal flourishing, but that they also produce flourishing, both in the moment and over time. It is this claim that points to the idea of a self-sustaining cognitive feedback loop.
In reaching these conclusions, Fredrickson examined the impact of a range of positive emotions, including joy, contentment, interest, pride, and love. She maintains that these and similar emotions share an ability to facilitate the broadening of thought-action behaviours in the moment, and also to build enduring physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources.
As well as this, another important element of this theory is the claim that the experience of positive emotions can also act to undo the lingering effects of negative emotions, acting as a kind of an antidote. Fredrickson refers to this element of the theory as the ‘undoing hypothesis’.
In essence, ‘broaden’ element of broaden-and-build refers to how positive emotions can encourage creative thinking in individuals, thus assisting us in, for example, problem-solving, while the ‘build’ element refers to the beneficial and self-sustaining cognitive architecture that can be put in place arising from the experience of these emotions, with positive implications for performance. And from there, the logic of the theory is that the ‘broaden’ and ‘build’ elements can feed off each other, creating what Fredrickson refers to as “upward spirals” of positive emotion. Basically, the experience of positive emotions facilitates optimal performance, and optimal performance leads to the experience of more positive emotions, and each can therefore build on the other.
Fredrickson has authored or co-authored many academic research papers over the last two decades testing the merit of the theory. One such paper, written with Marcial Losada, was published in 2005. This work sought to examine the impact of positive affect on human flourishing. Its conduct saw two samples drawn from the undergraduate student population at a United States university, with a total of 188 participants. Initially, flourishing mental health was measured using a 33-item instrument assessing positive psychological and social functioning. Eleven of these items specifically measured positive functioning, and participants who scored high on six of these were deemed to be flourishing. All participants then logged on to a website every day for four weeks and rated on a five-point scale how much they had felt 20 distinct positive or negative emotions over the previous 24 hours.
Fredrickson and Losada then tallied all those scores and calculated an overall positivity ratio for each participant by dividing total positive emotions experienced by total negative emotions experienced. They detected differences between flourishing and non-flourishing participants, with higher ratios achieved by the former group in each of the two samples.
Arising from this, they proposed that the key ratio of positive to negative emotions to facilitate flourishing was 2.9, i.e., experiencing almost three times more positive than negative emotions in daily life.
This finding and claim received a lot of attention at the time and still pops up in media reports on well-being every now and then. Unfortunately, what has received far less attention in the mainstream is the fact that key elements of the findings reported by Fredrickson and Losada were subsequently retracted. Specifically, the idea of an exact ratio being linked with flourishing was withdrawn, arising from questions being asked about the specific approach Losada used to analyse data gathered by the authors.
However, while Fredrickson did not dispute the questions raised about the data analysis technique used by her co-author, she defended the thrust of the article’s findings, insisting that even with the mathematical modelling element removed – and instead relying exclusively on psychological theory and quantitative data – the link between positivity ratios and flourishing remains compelling.
In the formal correction to the original paper, Fredrickson stresses that the data gathered remains valid and that the key finding (that positivity ratios were significantly higher for individuals identified as flourishing) continues to hold.
While Fredrickson drew back from the idea of a specific ratio of positive to negative in terms of experienced emotions, researchers in related well-being areas have emphasised the need to target a certain number of positive experiences to negative so as to achieve desired outcomes. This is an area we will look at more closely next time.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.