As tan bear clearly shows us, if there’s one thing many people know about emotions, it’s the idea that there are positive ones and negative ones. But it’s not just silly cartoon animals that share this idea: In emotion research, the categorization of emotions into the two simple categories of positivity and negativity is called valencing.
Valencing theory tells us that there are two kinds of emotions: Positively valenced emotions are evoked when something is attractive to us, and negatively valenced emotions are evoked when something is aversive. There is also some attempt to valence emotions into the categories of pro-social, which is positive, and anti-social, which is negative. What’s funny is that when you start to question the criteria under which an emotion is valenced, the categories begin to fall apart almost immediately.
On page 26 in The Language of Emotions, I write:
The socially accepted view is that there are good emotions and bad emotions. These categories have a bit of interplay, but basically, good emotions are the ones that make us easy to be around, while bad emotions are the ones that shake things up.
That’s a bit of sarcasm on my part, but it’s not very far from the truth. What I have noticed in our emotional education is that there is a not-very-well-hidden aspect of social control in the valencing of emotions. The emotions that are classified as positive are, honestly, some pretty lightweight ones: happiness, contentment, joy, amusement, and other emotions in the area of happiness. These are fun, peppy emotions, and they make us feel good. Yay! They arise when we’re attracted to something. Yay! They can be pro-social, in that they help us connect to, empathize with, and understand and care about the rights and well-being of others. Yay!
Caring about the rights and well-being of others requires more than happiness. Pro-social behavior requires more than just hope and happiness; it requires the sense of justice and fair play that anger, jealousy, and envy bring to the table; it requires the awareness of safety and hazard that fear alerts us to; it requires that we have the capacity for the self-monitoring and behavioral modification that authentic shame brings to us … in short, pro-social behaviors require the entirety of emotions, and not just the light and fresh-scented ones. The idea that you can valence emotions under the categories of pro-social and anti-social is too simplistic.
The concepts of attraction and aversion are also too simplistic. Sure, we’re generally attracted to things that make us happy, and generally aversive to things that make us feel disgust. BUT, many of us are attracted to things that frighten and anger us (see any internet comment board). We are attracted to scary movies, which help us feel fear. We’re drawn toward people and issues that anger us (in some cases, only anger can get us to address an issue that we’d rather avoid).
And though fear is classified as a negative emotion in valencing theory, one of the chief functions of fear is to get us to orient in the direction of a hazard (or in the direction of a change in our environment). Fear’s purpose is to get us to treat a hazard or a change as a thing of intense interest; if we aren’t attracted to the fearful thing, we won’t be able to identify and respond to it.
Emotions are not simple things that fit into simple-minded categories. As you think about emotions, have you had experiences where a supposedly positive emotion wasn’t appropriate or useful — and have you had experiences where a supposedly negative emotion turned out to be the best possible response to the situation? I think we all have.
Be very careful about reifying simplistic valences. Emotions are not binary functions. Emotions are irreplaceable parts of cognition, social functioning, and survival; they’re not simply one thing or the other.
In the book, I write about appropriate emotions, or emotions that are correct in specific situations. You can’t just organize emotions into two categories. If you want to understand emotions as an interconnected system (which is what they are), you have to observe and classify emotions in context. Knowing the language of emotions is a great first step!
However, if you don’t know the language of emotions, you can always look at trees. They’re pretty, aren’t they?