Pollyanna Principle

What actually is the Pollyanna principle?

The term “Pollyanna Principle” refers to the human tendency to specialise in the positive and use more positive words and terms during a conversation. Generally, people who are mentally healthy and not suffering from depression tend to focus more on the positive than the negative, and they are prone to recalling more positive than negative phenomena from their memories as well.

Where does the term Pollyanna principle originated?

The Pollyanna principle originated from Eleanor H. Porter’s novels. The novels’ main character may be a female child , Pollyanna, who has the power to ascertain only the positive side of things. That invincible and determined optimism served as an idea to define the bias which will actually help us live happier lives.

What’s the Psychology behind Pollyannaism?

This principle was first identified by researchers Matlin and Stang in the 1970s, who observed that humans tend to be noticeably upbeat and positive more often than downcast and surly. Their research found that people place greater importance on the positive, and often assume the best when it comes to making decisions without all the relevant information.

In their own words, Matlin and Stang explained, “cognitive processes selectively favor processing of pleasant over unpleasant information”. This tendency leads us to be more optimistic, positive, and forward-thinking, all traits that help us to function in our everyday lives and smooths our interactions with other people (more on that later).

In addition to specializing in the positive overall, the Pollyanna Principle explains that we are far more likely to recollect pleasant and positive memories. We even tend to recall neutral events as more positive than they really were, which often gives us “rose-colored glasses” about our past and feeds our sense of nostalgia for days gone by.

We all have our down days and difficult moments, and none of us are often Pollyanna all the time. As with most things in life, the sweet spot is during a healthy balance of positivity and optimism alongside realism, a way of context, and a working understanding of what is appropriate and when.

As it seems , even those folks that suffer from depression or other mood disorders have an inherent ability to specialise in the positive. Psychologists William Dember and Larry Penwell conducted an experiment during which they compared scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (a widely-used scale for depressive symptoms) with scores on a happiness measure and two “Pollyanna” measures. Dember and Penwell found that, needless to say , scores on the Depression measure were significantly negatively correlated to scores on the happiness measure, but depression scores weren’t significantly correlated with the scores on either Pollyanna measure (1980).

This indicates that our inherent positivity bias is something separate from the mood disorders that afflict so many of us, and suggests that we are still capable of focusing on the positive even within the most trying and depressing times. Perhaps this innate tendency towards the positive is what the many treatments for depression are able to harness and reinforce, guiding us to use our own inner strength to restore a healthy balance of positivity and realism rather than falling on the negative side of the spectrum.

What is the Person-Positivity Bias?

The need for a balance of optimism and realism is highlighted when we consider how our feelings about people influence our behavior. If we always assumed the best of people and focused only on the positive, we would find ourselves being taken advantage of and may end up penniless and downtrodden!

Although associated with the Pollyanna Principle, this phenomenon has its own term: person-positivity bias. It supports the observation that folks tend to love individuals quite the groups that the exact same individuals compose (Sears, 1983). You might recognize this in a number of your daily conversations such as have you ever heard someone say something like, “I generally don’t like Red Sox fans, but you’re alright!” or “I hate lawyers, but this one’s not so bad.”

This tendency to see the positive in individual people causes us to make “exceptions” and generally to continue with our established view of the group or groups to which they belong. For example, this phenomenon helps explain why racist people can have a friend who is a member of a racial minority but still see that race as inferior or undesirable overall.

One interesting bit of evidence that points to the existence of a person-positivity bias is the phenomenon of student evaluations: students generally rate their professors significantly more highly than the very classes they teach!

Positivity Bias and Language

One of the ways in which researchers have been able to highlight the existence of the Pollyanna Principle is through analyzing the language we use. A recent study that evaluated over 100,000 words across 10 different languages found that there is a universal and deep-rooted positivity bias that crosses the boundaries of country, language, culture, and even frequency of word use (or what proportion we tend to talk; Dodds et al., 2015).

Data was collected from Twitter, Google, Google Books, the ny Times, movie and television subtitles, and music lyrics, and therefore the languages evaluated included English, Spanish, Portuguese French, German, Russian, Arabic, Indonesian, Korean, and Chinese. In every single sample, the researchers found evidence of a positivity bias. Although some languages and sources were more susceptible to positivity than others (Dodds et al., 2015).

Positivity Bias and Aging

This positivity bias that encourages us to concentrate on the positive in life is usually stronger in older adults than in children and children . Many studies have found that, as people age, they have a tendency to recollect more positive than negative information

Some researchers have hypothesized that the positivity bias is due to cognitive decline, but others insist that the positivity bias is present in cognitively healthy older adults and results from one’s ability to shift mental effort to goal-relevant stimuli and away from distractions or non-relevant stimuli (Reed & Carstensen, 2012).

Whether this bias is caused by healthy cognitive processing or dysfunctional cognition, it’s clear that older adults are more likely to specialize in the positive in their lives. For example, older adults are shown to recall a greater proportion of positive images than negative images as compared to younger people (Mather & Knight, 2005), they direct their attention towards happy faces and away from angry or sad faces , and they focus on the positive attributes or consequences of their choices more frequently than younger people.