The problem with positive & negative emotions

(Adapted from Chapter 3 of The Emotional Learner, 2017)

In The Emotional Learner I presented the hypothesis that some emotions help towards the achievement of academic goals by expanding our thought processes and allowing us to invest in psychological capital. Other emotions, on the other hand, restrict these options, leading us into either-or situations (the so-called Broaden and Build model). However, there is a problem with this suggestion because positive emotions don’t always help and negative emotions don’t always hinder. Could it be that the usefulness of emotions changes in response to the situational conditions? This is an interesting proposition and one that brings us back to the suggestion that classifying emotions as either positive or negative represents and error in our understanding of their complex nature.

Reinhard Pekrun has spent much of his academic career investigating the tangled web of emotions and motivation. While emotions influence motivation, these effects might be different for different types of positive and negative affect, suggests Pekrun. What he means by this is that in certain circumstances both negative and positive emotion can either activate or deactivate our motivational responses. On the other hand, deactivating negative emotions such as hopelessness and boredom can undermine motivation. So far so good – this appeals to our common sense and current understanding. For some emotions, however, the interaction is more complex. Pekrun suggests that positive emotions like relief and relaxation deactivate motivational responses and that these responses have both long-term and short-term consequences. For example, a student might experience relaxed contentment after having taken an important test, reducing immediate short-term motivation and a reluctance to re-engage with learning. However, this same emotion may well motivate the student to engage at a later time.

Pekrun describes such emotions as achievement emotions due to their emphasis on academic goals. These emotions can arise during both activities and outcome. An activity, therefore, might result in curiosity if the students find the task interesting or boredom if the demands of the task are mismatched (too easy or too difficult). Outcome related achievement emotions arise when an activity (for example, a test) has been completed and the outcome known. This might include joy or pride at the favourable result or anger at the seemingly insurmountable task demands.  As well as achievement emotions differing in terms of activity and outcome, they also differ in terms of valance and activation. Valance refers to the extent to which an emotion is seen as positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant. Activation refers to the extent to which the emotion was activating or deactivating (see the table below)

In the same way that positive-deactivating emotions can hamper motivation, some negative emotions can strengthen extrinsic motivation. Anxiety, on the other hand, can negatively impact academic achievement, however, it can also motivate if the expectation of the outcome is likely to be a positive one. In these circumstances, fear of failure motivates because there is a very real chance of success and not achieving the anticipated success could be viewed as a personal attack on intelligence and self-worth. This is interesting because this view argues that emotions react in different ways in regards to different types of motivation. Intrinsic motivators in learning (a personal desire to engage with activities because of individual interest or the joy it brings) tend to be preferable due to their resilience and long-term sustainability, while extrinsic motivators (the desire to succeed based on a reward for doing so) are often short lived and can backfire when incentives are withdrawn. The research underpinning the view that anxiety can enhance extrinsic motivation has produced variable results, perhaps due to the subjectivity of the evaluation of possible success. Of course, if the student feels that success in less likely, then anxiety is assumed to lead to lower level of activation or, worse still, deactivation because of the feeling that failure is inevitable.

So do positive emotions lead to higher levels of academic achievement. What starts out as a fairly straightforward suggestion proves to be more complicated than anticipated because the idea of positive and negative emotions being separate from each other turns out to be an unhelpful distinction. Emotions are more accurately described as affective states and the dichotomy of positive and negative emotions turns out to be false when we take the evidence into account. Positive Psychology was certainly founded upon laudable principles but its foundations are weak and unable to support many of its ideas. When we delve deep enough we discover a highly complex yet fascinating situation where positive emotions sometimes hinder and negative ones often help, amounting to a direct attack on the view that happier learners are more successful. We do, however, need to stress the view that severe negative emotions such as chronic anxiety and depression do negatively impact on both wellbeing and academic achievement. Emotions are slippery characters and should be treated with a degree of respect; negative mood is not a bad thing but when an individual spends the majority of their time in this state then problems can ensue – I’m not advocating that teachers should induce negative states just to raise levels of achievement, but neither should teachers fall into the trap that all positive emotions are useful in all circumstances.

The theory proposed by Pekrun is perhaps the most useful for our purpose. Learning is without doubt influenced by emotions just as all human behaviour is influenced by our emotional states. These states fluctuate wildly and are involved in an intricate interplay of biology and environment that will impact on the pupils in a classroom in highly diverse ways. Furthermore, the complex brain and self-building during the teenage years can make these emotional states more volatile, but this isn’t inevitable, so teenagers deserve special consideration. The view is that emotion has activating and deactivating qualities (regardless of their positive or negative nature). Recognising and working with these states is part and parcel of the teacher-learner relationship and encouraging emotional awareness in both teachers and learners allows us to better utilise states that we seemingly have little control over. Eradicating certain emotional states is unhelpful and will often backfire; removing components from the curriculum because they are too sensitive or anxiety provoking is also unhelpful, yet deliberately placing young people into anxiety provoking situations to make them more resilient is equally erroneous.

See also: Pekrun, R., Frenzel, A.C., Goetz, T. & Perry, R.P. (2007). The Control-Value Theory of Achievement Emotions : An Integrative Approach to Emotions in Education. p.13–36.

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