Heather C. Lench - December 2015 Meeting Topic

The Critical Value of Negative Emotions

Heather C. Lench

Texas A&M University

Functional accounts of emotion have guided research for decades, with the core assumption that emotions are functional – they improve outcomes for people. What do negative emotions do for people?  I propose that the function of emotions can be defined as the degree to which discrete emotions result in better outcomes in particular types of situations. Focusing on sadness and anger, there is evidence related to the situations that elicit these emotions, the cognitive, physiological, and behavioral changes associated with the emotions, and the extent to which these changes result in demonstrably better outcomes in the type of situation that elicits the emotion. Sadness is elicited by perceived goal loss without possibility of restoration given current abilities and is associated with deliberative reasoning, reduced physiological activity, and behavioral expression. There is preliminary evidence suggesting that sadness can permit coping with loss, and that expression of sadness can recruit others to assist in goal attainment. Anger is elicited by perceived goal loss that can be prevented if an obstacle is overcome and is associated with heuristic reasoning, increased physiological activity, and behavioral expression. There is evidence that expression of anger prompts others to remove themselves as obstacles, and preliminary evidence that anger can promote overcoming obstacles and goal attainment. Like precision tools, specific emotions are best utilized to resolve particular problems.

Despite empirical evidence that negative emotions are functional, people are generally averse to experiencing negative emotion. In fact, they will pay money to avoid experiencing negative emotions. Preliminary evidence suggests that viewing negative emotions as functional can permit people to better respond to the experience of these emotions. Over time, embracing the benefits of negative emotions could result in less wasted cognitive effort in regulating these emotions, better overall functioning, and the ability to transcend daily concerns. Ironically, by permitting negative emotions to fulfill their function, it might permit people to reach beyond daily concerns.