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Chapter 13: Positive Emotions
Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions
Barbara Fredrickson developed the broaden-and-build theory to explain how positive emotions increase life satisfaction (see Figure 23). This theory includes four steps: 1) experience of positive emotion 2) broadening of thoughts and behaviors 3) building personal resources and 4) transforming the self by increasing health, well-being, and survival.
Figure 23 Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions
Reproduced from “Positive emotions broaden and build,” by B.L. Fredrickson, In P. Devine and A. Plant (Eds.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, p. 16, Copyright 2013 Academic Press. Adapted from “Positive emotions” by B.L. Fredrickson and M.A. Cohn, , 2008, In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, and L.F. Barrett Handbook of Emotions (3rd Edition, p. 783). Copyright 2008 Guilford Press.
Fredrickson and Cohn (2008, p. 782) define the broaden-and-build theory as:
“…positive emotions broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires and lead to actions that build enduring personal resources.”
Let’s break down this definition.
According to this theory, experiencing any positive emotion should immediately and temporarily “broaden” attention, cognitive, and behavioral responses. This is in comparison to negative emotions which narrow our attention and behaviors to the threat in our environment so that we can behave in such a way as to avoid or reduce the threat. In general, Fredrickson means that positive emotions help us to become more aware of our surroundings and to take in more of our external environment. In addition, she states that during this broadening period our possible behaviors are “flexible” (Fredrickson & Cohn, 200, p. 782). By flexible, she means that there are many possible approach behaviors we could exhibit for a positive emotion. Again, in comparison to negative emotions which typically result in one behavior – attack, avoidance, etc. Table 25 displays some examples of the cognitive and behavioral responses for specific positive emotions.
Table 25 Cognitive and Behavioral Responses Caused by Specific Positive Emotions
A table showing a positive emotion, and the broadened and flexible cognitive and behavioral responses.
Broadened and Flexible Cognitive and Behavioral Responses
Urge to play, push limits, be creative
Urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, and explain the self
Urge to sit back and savor current life circumstances; integrate new views of self and world
Urges to play with, explore, and savor loved ones.
Adapted from “Positive emotions” by B.L. Fredrickson and M.A. Cohn, , 2008, In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, and L.F. Barrett Handbook of Emotions (3rd Edition, p. 782). Copyright 2008 Guilford Press.
Over a long period of time as we continue to experience positive emotions that broaden our attention/thoughts/behaviors, this process will lead us to build personal resources. These personal resources, in turn, have a direct impact on improved health, life satisfaction, and depressive symptoms. So, Fredrickson views broadening and building as adaptive processes that improve survival and well-being.
Evidence for the Broaden Hypothesis
The broaden hypothesis states: “Positive emotions broaden the scopes of attention, cognition, and action, widening the array of percepts, thoughts, and actions presently in mind” (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005 p. 315)
The narrow hypothesis states that negative emotions narrow attention to focus on the threat in the environment.
Studies have confirmed the broaden hypothesis by demonstrating that positive emotions cause greater awareness of the visual field and by showing that positive emotions cause people to process information at a more global (vs. detailed) level.
Fredrickson and Branigan (2005) tested the broaden hypothesis in two experiments. In experiment 1, participants were randomly assigned to watch one of five watched film clips to elicit an emotion. Two clips elicited a positive emotion (amusement, contentment/serenity), two clips a negative emotion (anger/disgust, anxiety/fear), and one clip a neutral state. After watching their assigned film clip, participants completed the visual processing task. After completing the experimental tasks, participants reported their subjective feelings.
In the Experiment 1 visual processing task, participants were shown a standard image and two possible response options – A or B (see Figure 24). In the example below, the standard image is three square elements that together make up a triangle. Participants were asked if the standard image was more similar to the A or B figure. The A figure represented broadened attention because globally the standard image shows a triangle. The B answer represented narrowed attention because the narrow/smaller details in the standard image are squares. For each participant, the number of times they selected the broadened answer was summed. Higher scores, therefore, indicate greater broadened processing.
Reproduced from “Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires” by B.L. Fredrickson and C. Branigan, 2005, Cognition & Emotion, 19(3), p. 317 (https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930441000238)Copyright 2005 by Psychology Press
Statistical analyses (Figure 25) revealed that the amusement clip resulted in greater broadened processing compared to the neutral clip and the contentment/serenity clip trended toward more broadening than the neutral clip (p = .064). Interestingly, the data did not support the belief that negative emotions result in narrowing of attention as the neutral condition did not result in more broadening than the fear/anxiety and anger/disgust clips.
Reproduced from “Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires” by B.L. Fredrickson and C. Branigan, 2005, Cognition & Emotion, 19(3), p. 323 (https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930441000238)Copyright 2005 by Psychology Press
In Experiment 2, the same participants were randomly assigned to one of the remaining four clips they had not viewed. After participants viewed their assigned clip, they provided one or two words to describe their emotion and then completed the Twenty Statemen Test (TST; Kuhn & McPartland, 1954). In the Twenty Statements Test, participants were instructed to imagine being in the film clip and respond to twenty statements that started with “I would like to .” Higher scores indicated more broadened behaviors. Experiment 2 ended with participants again self-reporting their subjective feelings.
Similar to Experiment 1, Figure 26 shows that the amusement clip resulted in greater broadened behaviors than the neutral clip and the contentment/serenity clip approached significance (p = .109). When both positive (amusement, contentment) clips were added together, they showed more broadening than the neutral clip and the two negative emotion clips added together. Fredrickson and Branigan (2005) stated that findings support the broadening and narrow hypotheses. But, only the anger/disgust clip showed greater narrowing than the neutral clip. The fear/anxiety clip was not different from the neutral clip.
Reproduced from “Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires” by B.L. Fredrickson and C. Branigan, 2005, Cognition & Emotion, 19(3), p. 324 (https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930441000238)Copyright 2005 by Psychology Press
The researchers also coded the participants responses to the Twenty Statements Test and then analyzed differences in answers for the positive, negative, and neutral film clip conditions. Compared to the neutral condition, participants who watched positive film clips exhibited a greater desire for the following approach behaviors:
Desire to play
Desire to have positive thoughts
Less Desire to Sleep/Rest
Compared to the neutral condition, participants who watched negative film clips exhibited the following desires:
Lowered desire to:
complete work/school tasks
Greater desire to be antisocial for anger/disgust clip and to be around others for fear/anxiety clip.
Fredrickson and Cohn (2008) cite additional work that provides examples of broadening thoughts and behaviors. Below, Table 26 lists these examples with the citations.
Table 26 Examples of Broadened Thoughts and Behaviors (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008)
A table showing examples of broaddened thoughts / behaviors, and a citation for the example
Broadened Thought / Behavior
Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987
Open to learning new information
Estrada et al., 1997
Improved Verbal Performance
Rowe, Hirsch, & Anderson, 2007
More self-overlap with relationship partners
Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006; Waugh et al., 2006)
Dunn & Schweitzer, 2005
Reduces “Us versus Them” mindset
Dovidio, Gaertner, Isen, Rust, & Guerra, 1995)
Improved memory for faces of other races and reduced ability to identify physical differences between two races
Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005
Adapted from “Positive emotions” by B.L. Fredrickson and M.A. Cohn, , 2008, In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, and L.F. Barrett Handbook of Emotions (3rd Edition, p. 784-785). Copyright 2008 Guilford Press.
Evidence for the Build Hypothesis
The build hypothesis states “…temporary and transient experiences of positive emotions, by encouraging a broadened range of actions, over time build enduring personal resources” (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008 p. 785)
To test the build hypothesis, Fredrickson and colleagues (2008) developed a meditation intervention to demonstrate how positive emotions over time can build personal resources, and in turn, impact life satisfaction. Participants were randomly assigned to a meditation intervention or a control group. For the meditation group, participants were trained in the Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), which broadens mindsets using the positive emotions of love and compassion. For an example of LKM, visit Fredrickson’s Positivity Resonance page. This page includes examples of other meditations she has developed. In LKM, participants started by expressing love and compassion toward the self, then expanded to close others, acquaintances, and strangers. Participants were instructed to practice LKM at least five days per week for eight weeks. Including the baseline period, the study lasted for a total of 9 weeks.
The second independent variable was time. First, baseline measures were completed followed by 8 weeks of experimental meditation or control sessions.
At each time period, several dependent variables were measured. During the 9-week study, participants completed self-report measures of 9 positive emotions: amusement, awe, contentment, joy, gratitude, hope, interest, love, and pride, and 8 negative emotions: anger, shame, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, guilt, sadness, and fear. Using various self-report measures, participants reported on their personal resources. 18 personal resources were divided into four categories – cognitive, psychological, social, and physical. See Tables 27 through 30 for the measures of personal resources. Two outcome measures – depression and satisfaction with life – represented the outcome variables.
Table 27 List of 6 Cognitive Personal Resources Measured (Fredrickson et al., 2008)
A table showing cognitive personal resources and a definition of measure for each of the resources
Type of Cognitive Personal Resource
Definition of Measure
Mindfulness and Awareness
the act of not being mindless or not acting on “autopilot”; focusing attention environment and one’s own actions
belief that one is able to achieve goals
belief that multiple ways exist to achieve one’s goals
Savoring the Present
Enjoying current experiences
Savoring the Past
Enjoying the recall of past experiences
Savoring the Future
Enjoying the anticipation of future good experiences
Table 28 List of 8 Psychological Personal Resources Measured (Fredrickson et al., 2008)
A table showing psychological personal resources and a definition of measure for each of the resources
Type of Psychological Personal Resource
Expecting more good than bad events to happen to oneself
Ability to bounce back from challenges
6 Psychological Well-being Measures
Personal Growth, Environmental Mastery, Autonomy, Self-Acceptance, Purpose in Life
Table 29 List of 2 Social Personal Resources Measured (Fredrickson et al., 2008)
A table showing social personal resources and a definition of measure for each of the resources
Type of Social Personal Resource
Social Support from Close Others
Amount of social support received from close others
Positive Relationships with Others
High trust of others, low loneliness
Table 30 List of 2 Physical Personal Resources Measured (Fredrickson et al., 2008)
A table showing phsyical personal resources and a definition of measure for each of the resources
The first important analysis used time and experimental group as the independent variable predicting the amount of the 9 positive emotions averaged together (Figure 27). Time was a significant predictor of positive emotions for the LKM group, but not the control group. As exhibited in Figure 27, positive emotions increased over time for the LKM group but did not change over time for the control group. Note that week 3 is the first week LKM participants showed greater positive emotions than control participants. This suggests the effect of meditation on positive emotions does not happen immediately.
Change in Positive Emotion over 9-Week Period for Control and Meditation Groups
This same analysis was conducted for the average of the negative emotions. Surprisingly, time and experimental group did not impact negative emotions. Said another way, engaging in LKM did not change the amount of negative emotions people reported. So, LKM increased positive emotions, but did not decrease negative emotions!
Interestingly, further analysis showed that LKM did not significantly increase any specific positive emotion. Instead, LKM increased positive emotion experiences as a group (Figure 28).
The next analysis evaluated two casual linkages by comparing self-reports as week 8 to self-reports at baseline (Figure 29):
Change in Positive Emotions Causing a Change in Personal Resources
Change in Personal Resources Causing a Change in Satisfaction with Life
The above two casual linkages were significant for 9 personal resources: mindfulness, pathways thinking, savoring the future, environment mastery, self-acceptance, purpose in life, social support received, positive relationships with others, and illness symptoms.
As shown below in Figure 30, the remaining 6 personal resources did increase life satisfaction, but these personal resources were not influenced by the increase in the experience of positive emotions.
Further analysis showed that although LKM increased positive emotions, an increase in positive emotions did not directly increase the outcome of life satisfaction (as displayed in Figure 31 with the red X). Why is this important? This means positive emotions alone do not cause an increase in life satisfaction. For positive emotions to impact life satisfaction, the positive emotions must first increase personal resources. Another way to view this finding in that personal resources are mediators between positive emotions and life satisfaction.
Similarly, the experimental condition (LKM vs. control) did not directly increase personal resources or life satisfaction (Figure 32). For LKM to work, it must first increase positive emotions.
Similar analyses were conducted with depression as the outcome (instead of life satisfaction). The broaden and build model was supported, although a few differences exist. The first difference was that significance was not found for the personal resources social support received (displayed with red X’s in Figure 33). The second difference was an increase in positive emotions directly caused a decrease in depression. This means positive emotions reduce depression directly AND indirectly by changing personal resources. In line with the above findings for life satisfaction, experimental group did not directly impact change in personal resources or change in depression.
Figure 34 graphically displays the broaden-and-build theory based on the study we just reviewed. Make a note that broadening thoughts/behaviors and buidling personal resources are both mediators of the relationship between increasing positive emotions and increasing satisfaction/reducing depression.
Figure 34 Pictorial Display of Fredrickson et al. (2008) Results for Broaden-and-Build Theory
Table(s) 31 displays the four types of personal resources identified in research.
Mindfulness and Awareness
Savoring past, present, future
Using Productive Coping Mechanisms
Making More Friends
Higher Quality Relationships
Social Support Given / Received
Better Immune System
Faster recovery from Illness
Undoing Effect of Negative Emotions
Adapted from “Positive emotions” by B.L. Fredrickson and M.A. Cohn, , 2008, In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, and L.F. Barrett Handbook of Emotions (3rd Edition, p. 786-789). Copyright 2008 Guilford Press.
Fredrickson (2013) has theorized that broadened thoughts/actions and personal resources that occur for each unique positive emotion (shown in Table 32). The positive emotions are listed in the order of most frequently experienced to rarely experienced. This table shows that Fredrickson (2013) views all positive emotions as causing approach behaviors or expanding thoughts. Remember, that earlier we did discuss how some positive emotions might narrow our thinking or result in avoidance behavior.
A table showing a positive emotion, which thoughts or behaviors are broadened, and how it builds personal resources
Broadens Thoughts or Behaviors
Builds Personal Resources
Any / all of the below, with mutual care
Any / all of the below, with social bonds
Play, get involved
Skills gained via experiential learning
Creative urge to be prosocial
Skills for showing care, loyalty, social bonds
Serenity / Contentment
Savor and integrate
New priorities or views of the self
Plan for a better future
Share, joviality, laugh
Strive toward own higher ground
Motivation for personal growth
Absorb and accommodate
Note. Listed from most frequently experienced to rarely experienced. “Positive emotions broaden and build,” by B.L. Fredrickson, In P. Devine and A. Plant (Eds.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, p. 4, 6, Copyright 2013 Academic Press
In this Yale Experts in Emotion video, Barbara Fredrickson discusses how her undoing effect of positive emotions led to the development of the broaden-and-build theory. She also discusses her view on whether positive emotions are discrete or often co-occur. Start around 3:00 and end around 13:22.
Yale Experts in Emotion Video on Barbara Fredrickson