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Broaden and build theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


According to the broaden and build theory, formulated by Fredrickson (1998), positive emotions often initiate a cycle of more positive emotions. Specifically, positive emotions can facilitate the development of skills, networks, resources, and capacities, which in turn promote wellbeing and fulfillment.

Negative emotions tend to correspond to specific inclinations (Frijda, 1986& Frijda, Kuipers, & Schure, 1989& Lazarus, 1991& Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). Fear tends to coincide with the inclination to escape or avoid the immediate context. Anger is associated with the inclination to attack or maintain a course of action. Disgust is associated with the inclination to expel or shun some stimulus, and so forth. The corresponding physiological reactions facilitate these behavioral tendencies (Levenson, 1994). In contrast, positive emotions are associated with diffuse rather than specific tendencies& joy, for example, is associated with contentment towards inaction or aimless interests (Frijda, 1986)

In contrast, positive emotions seldom correspond to threatening contexts and thus such feelings do not need to evoke a specific set of inclinations or responses. In particular, positive emotions amplify the breath of attention and thinking-called the broaden hypothesis. Specifically, in contrast to negative emotions, which direct the attention of individuals towards potential threats and problems, positive emotions broaden the attention of individuals. For example, attention is directed towards a more extensive set of objects in the environment (Wadlinger & Isaacowitz, 2006). Similarly, individuals will consider a more extensive repertoire of possible actions in response to some event (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005)& joy, for example, corresponds to playful creativity and exploration (Ellsworth & Smith, 1988). In addition, individuals are more receptive to novel and exciting experiences (Kahn & Isen, 1993). Finally, individuals will embrace feedback and criticism (Raghunathan & Trope, 2002).

When the breadth of attention is extensive, individuals can develop skills and capacities that enhance their resilience, wellbeing, progress, and satisfaction--called the build hypothesis. That is, individuals might develop more intellectual skills, enabling these individuals to solve problems. Second, they could also cultivate psychological capacities, such as the ability to regulate their emotions. Third, they might develop more stable and trusting relationships. Finally, even their physical health tends to improve.


Several studies have shown that interventions designed to promote positive emotions do indeed enhance resilience, relationships, wellbeing, and satisfaction. In a study conducted by Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel (2008), individuals participated in six workshops, each lasting approximately one hour, in which they learnt a form of meditation, intended to foster positive emotions over a period of months. Initially, they learnt how to direct love and compassion towards themselves. Subsequently, they learnt how to direct these feelings towards other individuals. During each hour, 15 to 20 minutes of the session was direct to meditation, 20 minutes to discuss the progress of participants, and 20 minutes to information about meditation, such as how to integrate this practice with daily life.

Over the next 9 weeks, beginning with the first training session, participants completed daily reports, designed to assess mindfulness, hope, optimism, resilience, wellbeing, emotions, social relationships, illness, and sleep. Overall, loving-kindness meditation promoted more positive emotions-a benefit that was especially amplified after several weeks of meditation. These positive emotions were also correlated with many other benefits, including improvements in social relationships, purpose, hope, and health.

Positive emotions and flexible thinking

Positive emotions seem to motivate a focus on global, broad patterns rather than specific details and features. Several studies have shown that positive affective states enhances the capacity of individuals to recognize patterns (e.g., Basso, Schefft, Ris, & Dember, 1996& Derryberry & Tucker, 1994), whereas negative affective states focus attention on local details. Usually, these findings have emerged from paradigms in which the stimuli consistent of large characters, like a letter T, composed of smaller characters, like Fs. Participants must press a button depending on the identity of either the larger or smaller characters.

A focus on global, abstract patterns might underpin many of the other benefits that positive emotions seem to promote. Across a variety of studies, Isen and colleagues have shown that positive emotions foster flexible thinking--a capacity to integrate diverse material, to consider unconventional possibilities, and to adapt their behavior to accommodate changes in the environment. Specifically, when individuals experience a positive mood, their thinking is more creative (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987). They consider unusual associations between concepts rather than focus on conventional solutions (Isen, Johnson, Mertz, & Robinson, 1985). They integrate information effectively (Isen, Rosenzweig, & Young, 1991)-a tendency that is facilitated by the reminiscing that correspond to contentment (Izard, 1977)- which also translates into efficiency (Isen & Means, 1983). Because of this flexibility, positive mood translates into a broader range of possible options and alternatives to solve problems (e.g., Kahn & Isen, 1993).

Fredrickson and Branigan (2000, 2005) showed that such flexibility translates to a greater repertoire of action plans that individuals contemplate when their mood is positively. Specifically, participants were asked to specify various activities they would like to pursue if they experienced various emotions, as depicted in film clips. Participants listed more activities if the clip depicted joy or contentment rather than fear or anger. Participants who wanted an emotional film generated lists than were relatively moderate in length. Interestingly, the effect of positive emotions was similar for joy and contentment-and, therefore, seemed independent of whether they feeling was active or passive.

Positive emotions and memory

Positive affective states can also influence the memory of individuals. Specifically, when individuals experience a positive mood, their memory of peripheral or extraneous details tends to improve (e.g., Talarico, Berntsen, & Rubin, 2009).

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Talarico, Berntsen, and Rubin (2009), participants were asked to retrieve eight emotional events--that is, events in which they felt especially happy, calm, in love, positive surprise, negative surprise, anger, sadness, and fear. Specifically, participants were first granted one minute to identify an episode that epitomizes these emotions. Second, they were granted five minutes to transcribe the details of this memory. Third, participants completed the Autobiographical Memory Questionnaire, as described by Rubin (2006), to characterize these memories, such as the perspective, clarity, significance, emotional intensity, emotional valence, and assumed accuracy.

Finally, after each memory was recorded, participants determined whether each detail--or facet of information--was central or peripheral. In particular, they were asked whether this detail could be replaced or removed without affecting the main theme of this memory. Furthermore, they considered whether the detail evoked the emotional reaction. Details that are integral to the main theme as well as evoked the emotional response are regarded as thematically central, as defined by Reisberg and Heuer (2004).

The proportion of details that were peripheral rather than central was elevated when the emotion was positive surprise, calm, and, to a lesser extent, happy and in love. In contrast, fewer peripheral details were reported when the emotion was angry or, to a lesser degree, afraid or negative surprise (Talarico, Berntsen, & Rubin, 2009).

Furthermore, the proportion of peripheral details that were recorded was inversely related to the intensity of memories (Talarico, Berntsen, & Rubin, 2009). Furthermore, when many peripheral details were recorded, individuals were less likely to feel they relived the experience.

These findings are compatible with broaden and build. Specifically, when individuals experience anger, their attention and memory are directed towards the stimuli that provoke frustration. When individuals experience fear, their attention and memory are directed towards threatening stimuli. In contrast, in a positive state, attention and memory is not necessarily directed towards specific classes of stimuli. Thus, ambient or extraneous features are more likely to be processed (e.g., Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).

Nevertheless, these findings also show that emotional valence is not the only determinant of memory. Sad emotions, although negative, did not undermine the memory of peripheral details. Sadness might evoke broad thoughts, partly to uncover solutions to solve extensive problems and also to consider a range of counterfactuals (Talarico, Berntsen, & Rubin, 2009). Similarly, the feeling of love might restrict thoughts to a partner and thus focus memory to central features.

Positive emotions and openness

Positive emotions also seem to facilitate openness to information, feedback, and advice. For example, when individuals experience positive emotions, their decisions are especially likely to incorporate subtle cues and sources of information (Estrada, Isen, & Young, 1997).

One peptide is indeed associated with both positive emotions and social relationships. That is, concentration of a neurotransmitter peptide called hypocretin or orexin is elevated during moments of happiness and during social interactions (Blouin et al., 2013). In one study, electrodes were inserted into the brains of eight patients, treated for epilespsy, partly to measure levels of hypocretin. During this time, the patients engaged in a variety of activities, such as interacting with physicians, sleeping, and watching TV. Mood was measured regularly. Hypocretin was associated with positive emotions as well as anger or social interactions but unrelated to levels of arousal and lower during periods of sleep. Conceivably, hypocretin administration may enhance mood and alertness in the future.

Positive emotions and relationships

From the perspective of the broaden and build model, Waugh and Fredrickson (2006) argued that positive emotions might facilitate the formation of relationships. Specifically, positive emotions activate mechanisms that facilitate the acquisition of additional resources, including the formation of close relationships.

Positive emotions enable individuals to form broader, abstract categories. Hence, individuals become more inclined to perceive someone else--a partner or friend, for example--as overlapping conceptually with themselves (see Self expansion theory). That is, individuals develop a broader conceptualization of themselves, which entails their partner or friends. They will, therefore, tend to show care and support towards these other individuals. Consistent with this premise, Waugh and Fredrickson (2006) showed that individuals who experienced more positive than negative emotions were indeed more inclined to perceive their roommate as overlapping with themselves.

This overlap also improved the tendency of individuals to feel they understood each other. In particular, participants received pairs of traits that were opposite to one another, such as serious versus carefree, skeptical versus trusting, energetic versus relaxed, steady versus flexible, and lenient versus firm. They rated the extent to which their roommates exhibited both, neither, or one of these traits from each pair. Participants were had often experienced positive emotions often recognized both contradictory traits in roommates, which demonstrates a complex understanding of these individuals (Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006).

To develop strong relationships between peers, managers should ensure these individuals primarily interact during more enjoyable activities. Difficult, demanding, and unpleasant tasks should, perhaps initially, be undertaken separately.

Positive emotions and resilience

Positive affect might facilitate the development of psychological capacities that enhance resilience (see Tugade & Fredrickson, 2007). The flexibility and repertoire of action plans that coincide with positive affect might facilitate the capacity to regulate or overcome negative affect-called the undoing hypothesis (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). That is, over time, individuals who experience many positive emotions might acquire the capacity to recover rapidly from possible adversities.

In a study conducted by Waugh, Fredrickson, and Taylor (2008), participants observed a series of pictures, all of which were either aversive or neutral in emotion. Before each picture was presented, a cue appeared. The cue included a 0, 50, or 100, representing the likelihood the following picture was aversive. After each picture, individuals rated their affective states.

Some of the participants had earlier reported elevated levels of trait resilience. These individuals showed an interesting pattern of emotions. In particular, relative to other participants, they reported positive emotions, demonstrating rapid recovery, when the cue was 50% but the picture was neutral. Hence, these individuals had developed the capacity to recover rapidly when a possible threat is actually benign.

Several studies have shown that capacity to withstand difficulties and adversities improve when individuals experience positive emotions. Burns, Brown, Sachs-Ericsson, Plant, Curtis, Fredrickson, and Joiner (2008), for example, showed that positive emotions at one time predicted adaptive coping skills--including positive reframing, problem solving, and seeking alternative rewards for example. This finding confirms the proposition that positive emotions can facilitate broad, active, and engaged forms of coping.

The benefits of positive emotions on coping have been substantiated not only with self report measures but also with physiological measures (e.g., Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000). In these studies, participants are exposed to a distressing context--such as anticipating they will need to present a speech--which increases heart rate, vasoconstriction, and blood pressure. Nevertheless, if individuals watched a film that promotes joy or contentment, rather than neutral emotions or sadness, they recovered rapidly. These cardiovascular changes returned to baseline levels rapidly.

Positive emotions and moral reasoning

When individuals experience a positive mood, their moral judgments tend to be more nuanced and sophisticated. This possibility was confirmed and clarified by Pagano and Debono (2011). In this study, participants watched movies that induced either a positive mood or a negative mood. In addition, they completed the defining issues test, designed to assess moral reasoning. Participants were exposed to six scenarios, each representing a distinct moral dilemma. They were then asked a question about how they feel the protagonist should behave, such as "Should a man steal a drug to save his dying wife?" Next, they ranked a series of questions on the degree to which these matters are relevant to the decision. People who demonstrate advanced moral reasoning tend to recognize more remote, subtle, and intangible consequences or implications of behaviors. That is, to decide whether an act is moral, they consider whether the behavior aligns to universal principles of justice rather than merely legal principles.

Furthermore, the participants completed a measure of self-monitoring. This scale assessed whether people adapt their style and preferences to fulfill the expectations of other people.

Positive mood was associated with more sophisticated moral reasoning. This association, however, was observed only when self-monitoring was low. When self-monitoring is low, individuals are more sensitive to their own intuitions and emotions. When self-monitoring is high, they are more attuned to the preferences of other people and, therefore, often dismiss their intuitions and emotions. Taken together, these findings imply that positive emotions tend to increase the accessibility of an array of moral considerations, underpinned by intuition.


Neural or biochemical mechanisms

The neural or biochemical mechanisms that underpin the various processes of broadening and building have not been explored closely. Nevertheless, Ashby, Isen, and Turken (1999) have demonstrated that dopamine levels might underpin the relationships between positive emotions and flexible thinking.


Valence versus activation

According to broaden and build theory, positive emotions tend to increase the span of attention. That is, when individuals experience positive emotions, they direct their attention to a broader range of cues and global patterns, facilitating growth and progress. However, as many researchers show, not all negative emotions seem to confine attention to limited range of cues. Indeed, the level of activation, arousal, or intensity, instead of the valence of emotions, might determine whether attention is confined or distributed across a broad space.

Gable and Harmon-Jones (2010) confirmed this possibility. In their study, participants undertook the Navon letter task, designed to assess whether they confine attention to specific features or focus on broad patterns. In this task, a set of small letters, like Is, are arranged in the shape of a large letter, such as a T. The task of participants is to press one button if a T appears--either as a small or large letter--and to press another button if a H appears.

Usually, the larger letters--that is, the overall pattern--are recognized slightly more rapidly than are the smaller letters. However, in this study, some of the participants observed sad pictures. After they experienced sadness, this bias towards the larger letters was especially pronounced. This negative emotion--an emotions that is not as intense or arousing--does not confine attention to specific features but actually broadens attention (Gable & Harmon-Jones, 2010), directing the focus of individuals towards the overall pattern.

A subsequent study was almost the same, except some of the participants observed disgusting pictures. Disgust, a negative emotion that is more arousing or intense, biased attention towards the smaller letters. That is, after participants watched disgusting images, they responded almost as rapidly when the T or H was small rather than large (Gable & Harmon-Jones, 2010).

In short, negative emotions that are not intense or arousing do not necessarily confine attention to specific features. In contrast, negative emotions that are intense or arousing, demanding an immediate response, tend to limit attention to specific details. The same principle applies to positive emotions. That is, positive emotions that are arousing, demanding an immediate response, tend to direct attention to specific features or details (e.g., Harmon-Jones & Gable, 2009).

Motivational dimensional model

These findings, instead, support the motivational dimensional model (for a description, see Price, & Harmon-Jones, 2010). According to this model, some positive emotions are low in approach motivation, like contentment. That is, they do not compel individuals to initiate some behavior or act immediately. These positive emotions, consistent with broaden and build theory, broaden attention. In this state, individuals attend to many objects or to abstract concepts.

In contrast, other positive emotions, like excitement, are high in approach motivation. These emotions compel individuals to initiate some act. These positive emotions, contrary to broaden and build theory, narrow attention. Presumably, as individuals approach an object, they have evolved to disregard irrelevant distracters.

A variety of other studies also corroborate this account. In one study, conducted by Gable and Harmon-Jones (2008), participants watched films about desirable desserts, presumably inciting positive emotions, high in approach motivation. Other participants watched humorous films, presumably inciting positive emotions, but low in approach motivation. The films about deserts, relative to the humorous movies, narrowed attention to local details rather than global patterns, especially if participants were informed they will be permitted to eat the deserts later. That is, when large letters were composed of smaller letters, participants could recognize the smaller letters more rapidly.

In another study, Gable and Harmon-Jones (2008) compared people who tend to experience an approach motivation with people who seldom experience an approach motivation, as gauged by measures of reinforcement sensitivity. Again, after positive primes were presented, an approach motivation was especially likely to be associated with narrow attention.

Neuropsychological evidence supports this possibility as well. Activation of the left prefrontal cortex is associated with both the narrowing of attention and approach motivation (see Harmon-Jones & Gable, 2009).

Specific positive emotions


Awe is an emotion that includes feelings of wonder and rapture. People experience this emotion whenever they are exposed to something that is vast in some sense (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). These scenes or objects might be vast in size--such as the skeleton of a tyrannosaurus rex--in time--such as a very old relic--in number--such as a massive ant colony--in detail--such as a remarkable painting of human anatomy--or in ability--such as an amazing circus performance (Shiota, Campos, & Keltner, 2003& Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007).

In response to these vast objects or events, individuals feel motivated to adapt and to update their understanding of the world. They recognize their existing models about the world are inadequate because these perspectives had not anticipated these remarkable possibilities. Therefore, awe entails two features: a vast event and a need to adapt existing knowledge or assumptions.

Awe affects the cognitive processes of individuals. To illustrate, when individuals experience feelings of awe, they are more willing to shift their perspectives and opinions (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007), a tendency that facilitates the capacity of people to adapt their understanding and model of the world. That is, feelings of awe are negatively associated with need for closure or premature conclusions.

Likewise, after experience a sense of awe, people are more likely to feel connected to broader collectives, such as society in general (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007). They are more likely, for example, to define themselves as "an inhabitant of Earth". Because awe represents a sense of vastness, individuals feel diminished in comparison. Consequently, they perceive themselves as part of a broader social entity.

Similarly, awe increases the likelihood that people consider arguments carefully rather than depend on heuristics. In one study, conducted by Griskevicius, Shiota, and Neufeld (2010), either awe or other positive emotions were induced. Participants were instructed to describe an event in their lives that evoked a specific emotion. Next, participants were exposed to either strong or weak arguments about the benefits of comprehensive exams at university. Unlike participants who had experienced enthusiasm, amusement, or neutral emotions, participants who had experienced awe were more likely to embrace the exams if the arguments were strong rather than weak. That is, awe seemed to foster a comprehensive analysis of the arguments, demanding effort and concentration, instead of a superficial evaluation (Griskevicius et al., 2010).

Finally, when individuals experience a sense of awe, they feel that more time is available. They do not feel as restricted in time. In particular, when people experience awe, their attention is especially entranced by the immediate environment. According to extended now theory, when individuals are immersed in the immediate moment, time seems to be prolonged (Vohs & Schmeichel, 2003). Furthermore, consistent with socioemotional selectivity theory, the motivation of individuals to extend knowledge, fostered by a sense of awe, tends to coincide with a feeling that time is unlimited.

Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker (2012) undertook a series of studies that verify these possibilities. In the first study, participants first completed the sentence unscrambling task, to evoke an initial sense that time is restricted. In particular, their task was to rearrange words to construct sentences, in which the answers were "I am pressed for time", "Time is constricted", and so forth. Next, they watched an advertisement that provoked either awe or happiness. To elicit awe, people in these ads were interacting with vast and virtual waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space. To elicit happiness, people were waving flags joyfully. Finally, participants completed a series of questions, some of which gauged the degree to which these individuals felt restricted in time, such as "I have lots of time in which I can get things done". After people experienced awe, they felt that time was sufficient rather than restricted.

In the second study, participants were asked to reflect upon a personal experience in which they experienced awe or happiness. Next, they answered questions that gauge whether they feel impatient as well as whether they feel motivated to support charities (e.g., "How willing are you to volunteer your time to support a worthy cause"). Awe diminished impatience and increased the motivation of individuals to donate time but not to donate money. That is, because they experience a sense of sufficient time, they felt they are not too rushed to engage in community work.

Finally, the third study showed that feelings of awe increase the likelihood that people choose to dedicate their money to experience events rather than to buy material goods, a tendency that is related to wellbeing (see goal contents theory). This relationship was mediated by a sense of sufficient time.

Yet, as Valdesolo and Graham (2014) showed, when people experience moments of awe, their tolerance towards uncertainty dissipates. To override this uncertainty, awe promotes supernatural beliefs and other tendencies that imply that events that seem random are actually intentional.

For example, in their study, after people are exposed to videos that evoke awe, such as sweeping shots of space, canyons, and mountains, they are more likely to endorse statements like "The events that occur in this world unfold according to God's or some other nonhuman entity's plan". The degree to which people feel uncomfortable with ambiguity mediated this relationship.

These results are consistent with the function of awe: to refine existing schemas that can accommodate unexpected information or events. That is, people tend to experience awe in response to information or events that diverged from their entrenched expectations. To accommodate this information, people need to shift their understanding or assumptions about the world, and awe may facilitate this shift. Consequently, when awe is evoked, individuals feel motivated to reconcile information with existing knowledge. Because of this motivation, people who feel awe experience discomfort with uncertain or ambiguous information.

Awe and prosocial behavior

Awe is also associated with prosocial behavior (Piff et al., 2015). That is, after people experience awe, they tend to be more generous and inclined to help other people.

For example, in some of these studies, participants imagined a time, while surrounded by nature, in which they experienced a sense of awe. In the control group, they imagined a time in which they experienced other positive emotions, like pride, or just reflected on recent activities. After awe was induced, participants were more likely to return change to a cashier if they received more than they deserved. They also were more generous in the dictator game& they were willing to distribute their money to someone else. The effects of awe were mediated by a sense in which people felt small compared to the world. That is, if awe was induced, people endorsed items like "I feel the presence of something greater than myself".

Arguably, when people feel awe, they feel they are one facet of a vast force. That is, during moments that evoke awe, individuals realize their environment is appreciably more extensive than perhaps they had acknowledged& they need to extend their frame of reference. Individuals feel small in this huge environment. Consequently, they feel aligned to something broader than themselves. Because of this alignment, they are willing to sacrifice their personal interests to benefit this broader force.


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