How language reflects the balance of good and bad in the world

Imagine a garden filled with sweet smelling flowers and weeds. The flowers vastly outnumber the weeds, but the latter are more varied. And there’s another asymmetry – whereas the flowers have a pleasant scent, the weeds aren’t just scent-less, they’re poisonous, they can kill. According to a new study, life is like this garden. Positive events outnumber negative events, but negative events are more varied and potent. Paul Rozin and colleagues say that the English language reflects this state of affairs and so do at least twenty other languages.

Rozin’s team began by analysing a corpus of 100 million words of spoken and written English and found that positive words are used far more often than negative words – just as you’d expect if positive events are more common (to take one example, ‘good’ is mentioned 795 times per million words compared with 153 mentions per million for ‘bad’).

Moreover, the researchers say we’ve adopted a number of habits of convenience that reflect the frequent use of positive words in our language (in turn reflecting the greater frequency of positivity in the world). For example, positive words tend to be ‘unmarked’ – that is, the positive is the default (e.g. ‘happy’) whereas the negative is achieved by adding a negating prefix (i.e. ‘unhappy’). Rozin cites four more such habits. Here’s one more: when stating pairs of good and bad words together, it’s nearly always the convention to mention the positive word first: as in ‘good and bad’ and ‘happy and sad’ rather than the other way around.

Turning to the dark side, the greater variety of negative events in the world is also reflected in English usage. For example, many negative words don’t have an opposite: ‘sympathy’ (i.e. there’s no word for sympathising about another person’s good fortune), ‘murderer’ (there’s no word for giver of life), ‘risk’, ‘accident’ etc.

To see if these patterns are reflected in other languages, Rozin’s team interviewed the speakers of twenty languages (one speaker per language): Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Tagalog, Ibo, Arabic, Turkish, Tamil, Hindi, German, Icelandic, Swedish, French, Portugese (Brazilian), Spanish, Russian, and Polish.

Overwhelmingly, the patterns found for English also applied in these other languages. For instance, for eight sample adjectives, including ‘pleasant’, ‘dirty’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘pure’, it was the convention in 83.9 per cent of cases across all 20 languages for the positive word to be stated first alongside its negative opposite. Likewise, the negative words ‘sympathy’, ‘murderer’, ‘risk’, and ‘accident’ nearly always lacked a positive opposite.

‘We hope that this study calls the attention of emotion researchers to some interesting and widespread valenced biases in the use of language,’ the researchers said. ‘We believe these biases are adaptive responses to asymmetries in the world, as it interacts with organisms.’

ResearchBlogging.orgRozin, P., Berman, L., & Royzman, E. (2010). Biases in use of positive and negative words across twenty natural languages Cognition & Emotion, 24 (3), 536-548 DOI: 10.1080/02699930902793462

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

15 thoughts on “How language reflects the balance of good and bad in the world”

  1. Very interesting to see linguistic patterns replicated across languages. However, I'm a little sceptical of the claims regarding the lack of antonyms for “sympathy”, “risk”, etc. It really depends on how you define the original terms and present their opposing meanings. I can think of several opposites of sympathy relating to slightly different aspects of its meaning, including “indifference”, “hostility”, “disapproval”. In the study, the researchers describe the opposite of “murderer” as “someone who saves a life”, but equally the opposite could be “someone who is killed by another” i.e., a victim. If you define a murderer as someone who kills repeatedly then its opposite might be “someone who dies repeatedly”. Perhaps the only opposite for this is “zombie”?

  2. Hi Spy Wednesday – to be fair, the authors do acknowledge that there is plenty of room for debate. Regards the antonym for sympathy, the authors meant that there is no word for sympathising with another person about something good that's happened to them.

  3. Seems to me that “celebrate” works for sympathizing with another person about something good happening to them.

  4. This is quite interesting. It reflects other findings like most people being happy, rating themselves around 7 on average, if I remember correctly, on a scale of 1-10. Also, the way we have more varied 'negative' experiences; fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, ennui, jealousy, hate are more varied in their experience than happy, joy, content, excited, etc. I'm always a bit wary of language and lexical studies though; I prefer them to be backed up with other research, because I feel that there's more space for subjective interpretation. But it's pretty clear in cases like 'good' versus 'bad'.

  5. Spy Wednesday and Donna B make valid points..!

    I don't think linguistic patterns are adaptive responses to asymmetries in the world, but rather habitual demarcations to the limits of language that try to explain complex sensory responses.

    Ask the bigger questions before attempting a subset: What is language in its lowest form, below the fMRI? What causes it? Where's it stored? How's it processed?

  6. Did they consider the possibility that we use positive words more frequently for social reasons, not because positive events are more common? For example, I probably use the word “good” much more often than “bad” — I routinely tell my students “Good work!” but I don't think I've ever told a student “You did a bad job” in exactly those words. We have more diplomatic ways of criticizing people and things without using negative words.

    Also, I'm pretty sure we do have opposites for 'sympathy' and 'accident': sympathizing with a happy event is 'congratulation' (or 'celebration' as suggested above), and a positive event that happens unexpectedly or unintentionally is a 'windfall,' 'jackpot,' or 'serendipity.' The opposite of 'risk' might be 'opportunity' (a chance of a positive outcome), and the opposite of 'murderer' would probably be 'resurrector' (but since people don't typically go around raising the dead, we don't have a lot of use for such a word).

  7. hi Kris
    Are you sure that congratulation and celebration are really opposites of sympathy? Sympathy is usually thought of as an emotional response – the feeling of another person's pain. By contrast, I could celebrate your success (for example by attending a party) or congratulate you, without necessarily feeling anything much. Similarly, you could say that the opposite of murderer is not resurrector as you suggest (cos that's not possible) but someone who saves another's life – but again we don't really have a word for that, other than the clumsy compound 'life-saver'.
    Opportunity isn't the opposite of risk, because opportunity can be bad as well as good whereas risk is always bad. 'Windfall' is a positive outcome, it's not an expression of the chance of a positive outcome, which is what the opposite of risk should indicate.

  8. As a confirmed optimist, I heartily concur with the essence of this article. On mulling over the antonym question, I arrive at this notion: If someone who takes a life is a murderer, then its opposite must be… mother?

  9. Hmm. . . I think “rejoice” is the opposite of sympathy, and I would say that a mother would clearly meet the definition of “giver of life”!

  10. I'm not sure about 'rejoice' as the opposite of sympathy. Sympathy is specifically about something felt about another person's predicament. In contrast, I can rejoice selfishly just as much as about anyone else's good fortune. Mother is tricky – you could argue that life is created at the moment of conception, the Mother in this case being the provider of the egg and the host, not necessarily a life-giver. Even if they are, the word 'mother' obviously has all sorts of other connotations and meanings – it's not the life-giving equivalent of 'murderer' which is very specific in its meaning.

  11. Ok I'm starting to wonder why everyone has neglected to use the word “creator” as meaning “giver of life.” That is a perfectly good antonym of “murderer” to me.

  12. Creator isn't the direct opposite or murderer though, is it, because you can be a creator of all sorts of things. And in fact, who exactly is a 'creator of life'? A saver of a someone's life is probably better as an opposite to murderer but we don't have a word for that.

  13. A murderer's opposite is not the creator of life, because murder is a subselection of life-endings. A murderer's opposite is “someone who saves a life from an untimely end.” Murderer is someone who takes a life; “rescuer” is a person who saves it from an untimely end in a subselection of cases- often the same subcategory. The murderer is given a prison sentence; the rescuer is given a medal.

    We also have the very simple, “lifesaver.” We use it all the time in small parlance, but we also use it for people, and even for things- “therapy was a lifesaver for me, back then.”

    If murder is an act of violence, rescue is its antidote and opposite.

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