Robert Schrauf says he was a bit puzzled when he began analyzing data he collected that shows that regardless of age or culture, we have far more words in our vocabulary that express negative rather than positive emotions.
Schrauf, associate professor of applied linguistics and an anthropologist at Penn State, has long been interested in how people process words that express emotions. So he set out with a graduate student in psychology, Julia Sanchez, to see if there was much of a difference in two different age groups in Mexico City and Chicago.
In both cities, two sets of participants, one in their 20s and the other in their 60s, were asked to jot down as many words as they could in two minutes that express emotion. Then they were asked whether each word was positive, negative or neutral.
"I found this surprising result," Schrauf says. "Half of all the words that people produce from their working vocabulary to express emotion are negative. And 30 percent are positive and 20 percent are neutral."
"And every single one of these groups, young Mexicans and old Mexicans, young Anglos and old Anglos, had the same proportions, 50 percent negative, 30 percent positive and 20 percent neutral."
That raised the question of why.
Positive Words Few and Far Between
"You would think that maybe older people should have more experience and therefore more negative emotions, or maybe they've learned to deal with things and therefore have more positives," Schrauf says. "Why would it be invariant?
"Does this imply that human beings are more negative? Do we have more negative emotional experiences than positive ones?"
Schrauf started searching the scientific literature to see if he could find an answer, but he found more questions.
"The literature suggests that cross culturally, there are maybe five to seven basic emotions that show up in every language that seem to have the same meaning," he says.
Studies of 37 different languages turned up seven words that have very similar meanings. They are joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame and guilt.
"Seven words, and only one positive," Schrauf notes. "Isn't that awesome?"
So once again he was back to the basic question of why.
The answer, he says, probably lies in how we process emotional words and our early evolution.
Negative Thoughts Require More Thought
Negative words, like fear or anger, signal a threat or a danger, he says.
"There's a tendency to slow down our processing or think more carefully," he adds. "While positive emotions tend to tell us that things are benign or safe or everything is OK. So processing of those emotions is more script-like. Things are going OK, things are proceeding according to the outline of my life, so you don't do a lot of word processing."
But if you feel guilty, it may take a little more effort, and more thought, to figure out why and what to do about it.
Of course, there are some negative emotions for which we are probably hard-wired to react, he adds. Fear, for example, of a tiger on the loose doesn't require a lot of processing. The immediate response is to seek safety, and you don't have to ponder that fact very long.
"That makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint," Schrauf says.
But take the word "disgust." It may imply no imminent threat, but clearly there is something wrong here. So a person who feels disgust is likely to spend more energy "processing" the situation than if the emotion is "joy."
Or a neutral word, like "surprise," probably requires less processing than the word "hate."
So over the centuries, Schrauf says, people have developed more words to describe negative emotions because survival and quality of life may be at stake.
"Negative emotions require more detailed thinking, more subtle distinctions," says Schrauf, whose research was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.
So we conjure up more negative words because the language needs to be precise. And this research suggests that's probably true for every culture and every age group. Even though some of the words may not have precisely the same meaning in every language, they tend to be more negative than positive.
But that doesn't mean we're bad, Schrauf says. It just means we're trying to cope, and it's easier to cope with joy than it is with shame.
Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.