Momentum of Positivity and Pollyanna Principle

The “momentum of positivity” is constitutive for nativistic àSystematic Self-Blinding. By this phrase we mean on the one hand the tendency for negative events and experiences to undergo, in retrospect, “positivization” and to be evaluated and described as less negative than they were lived as being when first experienced. A locus classicus for this insight is Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious, in which he explains the “momentum of positivity” to be the result both of the obscuring effect of  >The Spectacles of Memory when looking back at the past and a certain instinct of hope that constantly optimistically anticipates the future.  Also contributing to this “momentum of positivity” is the finding – albeit a disputed one among researchers – that it is generally easier to recall positive things than negative ones.[1]


Pollyanna Hypothesis and Principle

Boucher und Osgood (1969) use the phrase “Pollyanna Hypothesis” to introduce their observation that people have a natural inclination to form positive ideas and draw positive conclusions. Boucher und Osgood remark that “there is a universal human tendency to use evaluatively positive (E+) words more frequently… than evaluatively negative words (E-).” (quoted from Baumeister et al.). Across all languages, “good” appears to be the most frequently applied evaluating term (see Rozin/Royzman).

In their 1978 study “The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in language, memory, and thought” Matlin and Stang argued that positive information can be more easily called up out of the memory than negative. It was this that they called “the Pollyanna Principle”.

For what reason are negative events or experiences more difficult to recall than positive ones? The reason lies, perhaps, not in the fact that negative things imprint themselves on the mind less firmly than positive ones; rather, this phenomenon seems to be traceable back to the fact that negative experiences are, over the course of time, at least neutralized, where they are not actually transformed into something positive. àWorking-Through of the Negative.


The Novel “Pollyanna”

The notion of a “Pollyanna Principle” is inspired by certain views expressed by the eponymous heroine of a novel written by Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868–1920). The best example of this “principle” is the scene in the novel in which the young girl Pollyanna discovers, in the forest, a man with a broken leg and tells him that she is happy. Happy about what? Well, she explains, that only one and not both of his legs are broken. Pollyanna calls this attitude to things the “game” that she has learned from her now-deceased father: “’Oh, yes; the game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ’twas,’ rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly.“ ( In fact, Pollyanna finds herself prompted very often, in the course of the novel, to play this “game”. And life itself plays such nasty tricks on her that her ability to maintain this “playful” attitude is put to a very hard test.

The aunt with whom Pollyanna lives gives an explanation, very much in antinatalist spirit, of why Pollyanna is obliged to undertake all those attempts to compensate for daily experiences of suffering that are recommended by adepts of positive thinking and other pronatalists:  “…just because I happened to have a sister who was silly enough to marry and bring unnecessary children into a world that was already quite full enough…” ( It remains unclear, however, whether the stance expressed here is a matter simply of a demographic-political antinatalism or rather of a breakthrough to an actual moral-theoretical antinatalism.

What Pollyanna calls “the game” is a competence in mastering existence which children early on acquire through practice or – in the case where they do not succeed in doing this themselves “by imitation” – is “beaten into them” by others. Whoever declines to participate in this “game” of fending off all negativity and refuses to don the >Spectacles of Memory is regularly accused of being a “spoilsport”.

[1] Baumeister et al. (2001) arrive, in their study of memory performance, at the conclusion of a certain dominance of the negative; Shelley E. Taylor (1991) and Rozin/Royzman (2001), however, assume a dominance of the positive.

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