Why Do Humans Have More
Words to Describe the Negative?
Feb. 2, 2005 —
- Robert Schrauf says he was a bit puzzled when he began
analyzing data he collected that shows that regardless
of age or culture, we have far more words in our vocabulary
that express negative rather than positive emotions.
Schrauf, associate professor of applied linguistics
and an anthropologist at Penn State, has long been interested
in how people process words that express emotions. So
he set out with a graduate student in psychology, Julia
Sanchez, to see if there was much of a difference in
two different age groups in Mexico City and Chicago.
In both cities, two sets of participants, one in their
20s and the other in their 60s, were asked to jot down
as many words as they could in two minutes that express
emotion. Then they were asked whether each word was
positive, negative or neutral.
"I found this surprising result," Schrauf
says. "Half of all the words that people produce
from their working vocabulary to express emotion are
negative. And 30 percent are positive and 20 percent
"And every single one of these groups, young
Mexicans and old Mexicans, young Anglos and old Anglos,
had the same proportions, 50 percent negative, 30 percent
positive and 20 percent neutral." That raised the
question of why. Positive Words Few and Far Between
"You would think that maybe older people
should have more experience and therefore more negative
emotions, or maybe they've learned to deal with things
and therefore have more positives," Schrauf says.
"Why would it be invariant?
"Does this imply that human beings are more
negative? Do we have more negative emotional experiences
than positive ones?"
"The literature suggests that cross culturally,
there are maybe five to seven basic emotions that show
up in every language that seem to have the same meaning,"
he says. Studies of 37 different languages turned
up seven words that have very similar meanings. They
are joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame and guilt.
"Seven words, and only one positive,"
Schrauf notes. "Isn't that awesome?"
So once again he was back to the basic question
of why. The answer, he says, probably lies in how we
process emotional words and our early evolution. Negative
thoughts require more thought negative
words, like fear or anger, signal a threat or a danger,
he says. "There's a tendency to slow down our processing
or think more carefully," he adds.
"While positive emotions tend to tell
us that things are benign or safe or everything is OK.
So processing of those emotions is more script-like.
Things are going OK, things are proceeding according
to the outline of my life, so you don't do a lot of
But if you feel guilty, it may take a
little more effort, and more thought, to figure out
why and what to do about it.
Of course, there are some negative emotions for
which we are probably hard-wired to react, he adds.
Fear, for example, of a tiger on the loose doesn't
require a lot of processing. The immediate response
is to seek safety, and you don't have to ponder that
fact very long."That makes sense from an evolutionary
standpoint," Schrauf says.
But take the word "disgust."
It may imply no imminent threat, but clearly there is
something wrong here. So a person who feels disgust
is likely to spend more energy "processing"
the situation than if the emotion is "joy."
Or a neutral word, like "surprise,"
probably requires less processing than the word "hate."
So over the centuries, Schrauf says, people have
developed more words to describe negative emotions because
survival and quality of life may be at stake.
"Negative emotions require more detailed
thinking, more subtle distinctions," says Schrauf,
whose research was published in a recent issue of the
‘Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development’.
So we conjure up more negative words because
the language needs to be precise. And this research
suggests that's probably true for every culture and
every age group. Even though some of the words may not
have precisely the same meaning in every language, they
tend to be more negative than positive.
But that doesn't mean we're bad, Schrauf says.
It just means we're trying to cope, and it's easier
to cope with joy than it is with shame.
Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com.
A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he
now lives in Juneau, Alaska.
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