Study: Negative Words Dominate Language

ByABC News
February 1, 2005, 11:22 AM

Feb. 2, 2005 — -- 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.

"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.