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The undoing effect of positive emotions

Barbara L. Fredrickson
Roberta A. Mancuso
Christine Branigan
Michele M. Tugade
University of Michigan

Published in 'Motivation and Emotion', 24, 237-258, 2000

The researchers proposed that positive emotions undo cardiovascular after-effects of negative emotions.  To test this hypothesis, they designed an experiment that would produce anxiety-induced cardiovascular reactivity.  170 university students (50% female) took part in the study.  Negative emotion was induced at the beginning of the experiment by telling participants that they had 60 seconds to prepare a 3-minute speech that would be recorded by a video camera and shown later to and evaluated by students in another study.  They were then advised that, if they had not been selected to record their speech, they would view a film clip instead.  All participants were then shown a film clip that elicited (a) contentment, (b) amusement, (c) neutrality, or (d) sadness.  

The findings of this experiment indicated that the positive film clips (i.e. those eliciting contentment and amusement), produced the fastest cardiovascular recovery compared to the neutral and the sad film clips.  The researchers suggest that this 'undoing effect', which occurred for both women and men, is activated when the initial negative emotion generates a clear pattern of heightened sympathetic cardiovascular reactivity that is typical of anxiety, fear, and other health-damaging negative emotions.  The undoing effect was also demonstrated for two distinct types of positive emotion, namely the low activation pleasant state of contentment, and the higher activation pleasant state of amusement.  Although these two positive emotions are different, they both appear to share the ability to regulate negative emotional arousal.  However, the researchers suggest that further investigation is required in order to determine whether or not this undoing effect generalises to other positive emotions, such as interest, love, pride, or excitement.

In a second experiment, involving 185 university students (49% female), the researchers monitored moment-to-moment emotional experiences while watching the film clip.  Participants rated how negative, neutral, or positive they felt during the experiment using a positive-negative affect rating dial.  Although the selected positive and neutral films differed in the emotional responses they produced, cardiovascular responses did not differ.  In fact, cardiovascular responses to positive and neutral films were practically non-existent.  The researchers argue that these findings support their hypothesis that positive emotions do indeed 'undo' the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions and do not just replace them.  The undoing explanation holds that negative emotions produce cardiovascular reactivity that may linger for variable amounts of time, and that positive emotions have a unique ability to speed the return to baseline levels of arousal.  By contrast, the replacement explanation suggests that the cardiovascular reactivity produced by the initial negative emotion is essentially replaced by the cardiovascular reactivity produced by the subsequent positive emotion.  However, no cardiovascular reactivity was recorded during the experiences of positive emotions in this experiment therefore the recovery effects that positive emotions have on cardiovascular reactivity after experiencing a negative emotion appear to be more complex than the replacement explanation allows.  Thus, the authors of this study argue that positive emotions do somehow undo the cardiovascular after-effects of negative emotions.  

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