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Why So Many Negative Emotions?

Why So Many Negative Emotions?

People using the Morphii platform usually notice that the Core morphiis collection is  comprised of more emotions that feel “bad” than ones that feels “good.” Some of them, primarily in the product sales and customer services sectors, make a specific request generally taking the form of “Um, we’d like people to have more positive options and fewer negative ones.” When pressed, they generally will admit to any underlying worry: “If I give people so many negative options to choose from, won’t I be prompting them to register more negative feelings about us?”  

These fears are ungrounded, at least not in reality.

It’s true that four of the emotions represented by the six Core morphiis are traditionally labeled as “negative” by researchers, reflecting the fact that they are subjectively experienced as uncomfortable and even agitating.  They are emotions that people generally hope to avoid or minimize.  We’re referring here to anger, sadness, fear, and disgust.  Only one of them, joy (a.k.a. happiness), is consistently labelled as “positive,” as surprise can be felt as being positive or negative, depending upon whether one decides the source for the surprise is something beneficial (“Oh! Look, snow! No school today!”) or distasteful, harmful, or obstacle-creating (“Ugh! I didn’t realize the milk had spoiled!”).  Surprise, therefore, is often characterized as being neutral, having no valence of its own.  

This is a reflection of reality: there are simply more ways to feel something negative than there are to feel something positive, and this is founded in our very existence as animals that must maintain certain internal and external factors within relatively narrow boundaries to support life and facilitate thriving.  Antonio Damasio, MD, a neuroscientist who has written extensively on the topics of subjective feelings and decision-making, has noted:

Optimal workings of an organism, which result in efficient harmonious states of life, constitute the very substrate of our primordial feelings of well-being and pleasure.  The are the foundations of the state that, in quite elaborate settings, we call happiness.  On the contrary, disorganized, inefficient, inharmonious life states, the harbingers of disease and system failure, constitute the substrate of negative feelings, or which, as Tolstoy observed so accurately, there are far more varieties than of the positive kind – an infinite assortment of pains and suffering… (pages 59-60)

Still, for some, the prospect of providing people the opportunity to register a variety of feelings that reflects this imbalance feels threatening.  It’s as if they believe giving people the opportunity to share negative feelings will somehow and necessarily influence them to register a negative feeling instead of a positive one.  However, there simply is no rational foundation for this fear. The availability of negative feeling options for spontaneous/organic reactions or as responses to survey questions does not prompt people to record negative feelings when in fact, they feel positively about a brand, service, product, or experience in question.  

While it is true that negative reviews can have a detrimental impact on consumers’ choices, negative reviews are not only inevitable, but are key opportunities for productive responses and business growth.  Neither fact can be generalized to suggest that people will choose to report or record negative feelings when they experience positive ones, or that the availability of negative feeling options for recording will sway people to feel negatively at all.  

Saliently, there are personality variables that can contribute to such fears.  To some degree, it has been argued, we are all motivated to protect our personal self-esteem and by extension, our professional/brand reputations. This would be considered normal, even adaptive, up to a point. But a high fear of negative evaluation could result in maladaptive behaviors more concerned with protecting one’s self-perceived reputation than with reality, which includes experience-based learning as a basis for realistically appraising one’s value to others.

The fear of negative evaluation construct includes a tendency to overvalue indications of negative feelings and undervalue indications of positive ones, along with undue distress over negative appraisals.  Persons high on this personality dimension might experience anxiety about offering people any option to provide unfavorable reviews or to express other-than-positive feelings.  Furthermore, they might experience selective perception, a from of cognitive bias, that could lead them to incorrectly assume that providing more negative feeling options will increase the number of negative feelings expressed, or worse, cause people to report negative feelings instead of positive ones.  

This could prompt decision-makers to refrain from providing a realistic variety of emotion options for communications, even to refrain from collecting feedback at all. Or, they might elect to offer what ostensibly might appear to be a less threatening, but ultimately less informative, array of options that reflect only simplistic positive or negative sentiment. Such simplicity and subsequent under-informativeness is exemplified by thumbs up/down options, which represent presumably only the positive and negative valence aspects of emotions – as if we had only two emotions, pleasant and unpleasant.  

Though many emotions share the distinction of being subjectively unpleasant (i.e. negative), they differ in extraordinarily important ways, particularly with respect to motivational and behavioral sequela. Disgust, for example, motivates a turning away from and avoidance of a perceived source for that feeling (think, spoiled milk), whereas anger motivates an impulse to attack, and sadness (present in disappointment) motivates us to power down. Each would be registered as unpleasant, negative, and other-than-happy in dichotomous systems, but only a system that allowed people to register whether they felt one or the other of these two feelings would inform a business owner, brand manager, or supervisor as to whether the respondent was strongly inclined to disassociate from the source completely, to try to actively and/or passively hurt the source, or to seek an apology from the source.  This can have strong implications for how easily or not – if at all – a respondent might be brought around to more positive feelings about the source.  


As common daily experience will attest, we have a broad capacity for feelings, including emotions and other subjective states, like fatigue, pain, and indifference. These can be represented by rating systems that focus on the specific feeling states, their valences, and their intensities, all the more effectively if they are, like the Morphii platform, easy to use, culturally agnostic, and science-based. A realistic approach to communications, including customer and employee feedback or input, means acknowledgment of the reality of the varieties of subjective experiences, not simply a limited focus at the pleasant-unpleasant or positive-negative valence level. Real learning requires the courage to allow people to tell us how they really feel, which can create open channels for communication, opportunities for resolution, efficiencies in resource allocation decisions, and even predictions of important behaviors and future trends.

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