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.’
Rozin, 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