Chapter 13: Positive Emotions

Undoing Effect of Positive Emotions

The undoing effect of positive emotions (Fredrickson et al., 2000) theorizes that positive emotions can help us to reduce the physiological repercussions of negative emotions. In particular, this concept suggests that after a negative eliciting event ends, physical and psychological changes from the negative emotion may still linger, such as increased heartbeat and negative subjective feelings. In turn, positive emotions can completely eliminate the outcomes that linger from the negative emotion.


A flow chart with three statements shown.
The flowchart reads: When threat that caused negative emotion is no longer present, then Negative emotion may still linger, then positive emotions may neautralize this lingering negative emotion.


In a study that tested the undoing effect (Fredrickson et al., 2000), participants first completed baseline measures of heart rate, finger pulse, and blood pressure. Then, all participants were induced to feel a high-arousal negative emotion by telling participants they would have 60 seconds to write a 3-minute speech on a topic provided to them. After this, participants were randomly assigned to watch a film clip that elicited either amusement, contentment, neutrality, or sadness.


Amusement: Puppy playing with flower
Contentment: Waves breaking on the beach
Neutrality: Abstract movedd of sticks piling up
Sadness: A young boy crying

Remember, throughout the study physiological measures were taken. The dependent variable was cardiovascular recovery measured as the time from which it took participants physiological results to return to baseline. In Figure 21, recovery on the x-axis was measured as the time it took from the start of their assigned clip to the time when their physiology returned to baseline. Keep in mind that a short time indicates faster cardiovascular recovery.

Figure 21
Cardiovascular Recovery for Each Emotion Clip (Fredrickson et al., 2000)

An inverted bar graph.
An inverted bar graph. The x axis is labeled – “Time elapsed from Start of Clip to Baseline (in seconds, and with 4 interval marks total: 0, 20, 40, 60)”. The Y axis are 4 emotions, each with a bar graph extending over the x axis. From the top of the Y axis, Sadness is listed, and is graphed at 42 seconds on the x axis. The emotion underneath is Neutrality and is graphed to the 35 point on the x axis. The next emotion listed underneath is Content, which is graphed at the 25 second mark on the x axis. The last emotion listed is Amusement, and is graphed at the 23 second mark on the x axis

Reproduced from “The undoing effect of positive emotions,“ by B.L. Fredrickson, R.A. Mancuso, C. Branigan, and M.M. Tugade, 2000, Motivation and Emotion24(4), p. 254 ( Copyright 2000 by Plenum.


Amusement and contentment resulted in significantly faster cardiovascular recovery than the neutral and sadness film clips.  Interestingly, the neutral clip resulted in faster recovery than the sadness clip.  In a follow-up study, Fredrickson and colleagues (2000) conducted the same study except that participants did not engage in the first stressor.  So, participants simply viewed one of the four clips.  Participants watching the sad clip exhibit more arousal than the other three conditions.  Differences were not found between the positive and neutral conditions.  What does this mean?  This means that experiencing positive emotions does not regulate our physiology better than neutral states.  Instead, experiencing a positive emotion directly after a negative emotion can help us to mitigate the negative emotional responses better than experiencing a neutral state after a negative emotion.


Undoing Effect of Positive Emotions: After a negative emotion, positive emotions help us to quickly return to baseline cardiovascular states.


One last interesting note about the undoing effect.  Later work (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004) found that the experience of positive emotions mediates the relationship between trait resilience and cardiovascular recovery (see Figure 22).  In other words, people high in resilience are faster to recover from physiological arousal because resilient individuals experience more positive emotions .


Figure 22

Positive Emotions Mediated the Relationship between Resilience and Cardiovascular Recovery (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004)

A flowchart diagram that has three items, flowing in a triangle shape.
A flowchart resembling a triangle. From the bottom left of the triangle is the item “Trait Resilience”. From this item there is an arrow the flows towards the top item of the triangle which is “Amount of Positive Emotions”, and a positive sign is shown next to the arrows flowing up. There is also an arrow flowing from the bottom left item toward the bottom right item, which is “Faster Cardiovascular Recovery” via a right arrow. This arrow has a minus sign shown next to it. There is an arrow that flows from the top item (Amount of positive emotions), to the bottom right item (Faster Cardiovascular Recovery), and shown next to it is a minus symbol.


Fredrickson’s undoing effect was developed prior to her more well-known theory – the broaden-and-build theory. In fact, Fredrickson originally believed the undoing effect was the main reason we experienced positive emotions and emphasized that positive emotions are adaptive because they help us to recover from negative emotions. Later on (see her Yale Expert in Emotion interview below) she revised this idea to state that the undoing effect was a side-effect of positive emotions. Now, her views is that the broaden-and-build theory represents the adaptive purpose of positive emotion – with the outcome of this model showing that positive emotions increase our physical health, well-being, and survival.



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