Pollyanna Principle or Syndrome: Is Absolute Positivity Actually a Negative?

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Pollyanna Principle or Syndrome: Is Absolute Positivity Actually a Negative?

Remembering past experiences as more rosy than it occurred / Photo by WayHome Studio via Shutterstock


Back in 1931, Eleanor H. Porter wrote a novel which focused on a girl who always tried to find something positive in every circumstance. The title of the book and the main character’s name was Pollyanna, who was taught by her father that she could change the world and just concentrate on the good things. She did this by playing the “Glad Game” which she explains by saying, “The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation.”

The novel was as influential as the titular character. In the story, even though Pollyanna had to live with harsh aunt Polly, she still decided to face the situation with cheerful determination and by being optimistic. Soon, her optimistic personality had such a great effect on her town, that everyone else too began started playing the Glad Game. The novels which Porter wrote conveyed a message of absolute positivism, which consequently, inspired the psychologists, Margaret Matlin and David Matlin, to come up with the Pollyanna Principle in 1970, exploringyourmind.com says.

What Is The Pollyanna Principle?

According to revolvy.com, the Pollyanna Principle states that “the brain processes information that is pleasing and agreeable in a more precise and exact manner as compared to unpleasant information. We actually tend to remember past experiences as more rosy than occurred.”

In other words, most people have the innate tendency to pay more attention to positive memories than the unpleasant ones. Even the neutral events are remembered as more positive than they actually were, hence its other name, the positivity bias.

Matlin and Stang argued in that individuals who had a positivity bias were slower at detecting threatening and unpleasant stimuli. Although being positive and being able to see the silver lining in any kind of situation, being called a “Pollyanna” has a stigma to it. It implies that because a person is excessively cheerful, they tend not to have a realistic view.

The Positive Psychology Program states that even people who are affected by depression and other mood disorders have a natural inclination to direct their attention to the positive. It was discovered in the study carried out by the psychologists William Dember and Larry Penwell.

Person-Positivity Bias

In connection to the Pollyanna Principle, is a positivity bias that deals with how a person perceives other people. This is called the person-positivity bias, a principle which states the people tend to like a person from a certain group than the whole group where it came from. For example, maybe an individual hates doctors in general, but they like Dr. Jones in particular. Therefore, this positivity bias makes people establish exceptions to the way they look at a group or to the group which an individual is a part of. This may also be the reason why some racists can form friendships with individuals from a racial minority, despite still seeing that minority as inferior.

Who is a “Pollyanna”?

Researchers from Cornwell University conducted a study to see if the language of people leans more toward positivity or aggressiveness. The authors of the study, Professor Dodds and his colleagues, examined over 100,00 words from different languages and they also investigated social media interactions. Some of the languages they investigated were German, French, Portuguese, English, Korean, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. They gathered information from movie and TV subtitles, Google, Google books, music lyrics and the New York Times.

They learned that messages that people convey have a clear positive emotional bias, which all the more proves that all humans are “Pollyanna”s.


Pollyanna Principle can form false memories / Photo by Fizkes via Shutterstock


The Negative in the Positive Bias

Being optimistic may be an admirable trait but there is a downside to it, which was has been thoroughly researched by Dr. Steven Novella, a neurophysicist at Yale University. People who live by the Pollyanna Principle may form false memories. It was revealed that individuals who were optimistic usually could not recall the negative experiences in their life clearly. On the other hand,  they are able to remember the good memories in a crystal clear way. Optimists tend not to think of the negative experiences as significant.

There are experts that propose to change its name from the Pollyanna Principle to Pollyanna Syndrome. This is because psychologists want people to know that there are limits and problematic features of this belief if people embrace it absolutely.

This simply means that humans need to find the delicate balance between positivity and realism, especially since how a person feels about others has effects on their behavior. When a person only chooses to see the positive side of things, it also poses the risk of being easily taken advantage of. Merely concentrating on the good sides of a situation can make it harder for people to deal with their problems. Even though optimism can be inspiring, it is important to take into account the negative experiences that happen and reflect on them.




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