February 2016

In the media

This article first appeared in Scientific American here.

This is a good article about emotional balance and well worth reading, but I do find it surprising that researchers insist on talking about emotions as being negative or positive. It makes sense to think of them as being pleasant or unpleasant, what psychologists might describe as positive or negative affect, but this labelling of the emotions themselves as negative is unhelpful and I’d go as far as to say non-sensical.

Surely if an emotion is negative, we should do everything we can to eliminate it from our emotional lives? There are some pop-psychology adherents and sellers of  ‘positive thinking’ snake oil who would agree with this (I’ve met some of them), but even if this were possible and it almost certainly isn’t, there would be some obvious logical consequences. For example, if we decide sadness is negative and try to eliminate it then what emotion will we experience at the funeral of a loved one or in when faced with an upset child, neighbour or friend? If fear is negative, what should we be experiencing in the face of danger such as an out of control car on the highway or even the heightened arousal that being nervous can give us when competing in sports, doing an exam or public speaking?

If we mistake the unpleasant experience of an emotion for an actual negative emotion, we are ignoring an extremely effective social communication system that has evolved over millions of years. So I recommend a little translating on the fly when reading these sorts of articles, because they are often full of useful information. Whenever we encounter ‘negative/positive emotion’, simply change it to ‘negative/positive affect’ and it all becomes a little more logical.